It nearly happened again. With 6:35 left in the game, the Nuggets held a ten point lead, 97-87. That lead would not last. As each minute went by the tension got tighter and tighter as Minnesota cut the score down to one point, threatening a repeat of what has haunted Denver basketball so far in this young season.
But the comeback by the Timberwolves would be to no avail. This time, for whatever reason, the basketball gods finally found favor with the Denver Nuggets. Emmanuel Mudiay converted a three-point play, the Wolves missed a game-tying three with three seconds left, and the Nuggets barely held on to improve to 2-2 on the year.
The Nuggets played lethargic in the first quarter, allowing Minnesota to have pretty much anything they wanted. And they wanted Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns did it all from the get-go as he attacked the paint, drew fouls, grabbed rebounds and hit three-pointers on his way to 14 first quarter points. The Nuggets tried everything to stop him, putting Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried on the star center to no avail. On offense Denver struggled aside from some great ball movement and fast breaks leading to open shots for Gallinari and dunks for Faried, and fell at the end of one 37-25.
Jusuf Nurkic came out in the second quarter with a chip on his shoulder, leading the Nuggets on a nice run to cut the lead to one. He would soon pick up his third foul, and Jokic would replace him followed by Faried. With only one center in and alternating between Arthur and Juancho Hernangomez at power forward, the Nuggets were able to keep themselves in the game despite the relentless attack from Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The two young Timberwolves combined for 39 points in the first half and gave Minnesota a 61-55 lead at the break.
As is custom nowadays, the third quarter belonged to the Nuggets and it wasn’t even close as Denver dominated both ends of the floor. Nurkic and Gallo took over as the Nuggets outscored Minnesota 33-14 and the defense forced turnovers and bad shots to hold the Timberwolves at bay. Heading into the second half Denver was down by six; after three quarters they found themselves with a nice 13 point lead, up 88-75.
The fourth quarter started out as a sloppy affair between the two benches as each team failed to do much in the first few minutes. Then the starters came in, and the Nuggets found themselves in familiar territory. The Wolves attacked and scored as Denver’s defense collapsed, letting Minnesota back into the game. With three seconds left, Minnesota had a chance to tie on a three by Nemanja Bjelica, but it rattled out and everyone in Denver breathed a sigh of relief as the Nuggets were victorious.
Jusuf Nurkic is the best player on the Nuggets right now
I got a lot of crap in the preview thread for putting Nurkic and Towns as “even” on the lineup card. I know that Towns is a better player. He had his way with the Nuggets defense much like every other star player Denver has faced this season to the tune of 32 points and 14 rebounds. But I don’t think it’s that far-fetched to have Nurkic in the discussion among the top centers in the league, even this early in the season. The Bosnian Beast has done a complete turnaround after his dud of a sophomore season to turn into the most impactful player the Nuggets have.
Tonight against Minnesota was one of Nurkic’s best games this season, which is saying something because he’s played phenomenally this year. He finished with 18 points and 5 rebounds, but what impressed me the most was all the little things he did right. He was poised on defense even with his four fouls, his decision making was smart on offense, and he ran the floor perfectly in transition. When Nurkic was in the game, good things happened for the Nuggets. I don’t think there’s any question who the most important player on the Nuggets is right now, and it’s Jusuf Nurkic.
Denver’s depth is its biggest asset
I’m not going to beat a dead horse with the whole “the Nuggets don’t have a star player” spiel, but this was as good team win all around. Gallo and Wilson Chandler led the way with 19 points each, Nurk put up 18 and each Nugget who touched the ball tonight got points besides Jamal Murray. Murray has struggled immensely to find his shot, going 0 for 8 tonight, but he contributed with three rebounds and four beautiful assists to finish +5. His time will come on offense.
What really won this game was Denver’s bench play. The Nuggets outscored the Wolves’ second unit 45-23, and were it not for a late game run by Nemanja Bjelica that gap would have been even wider. Michael Malone still has his hands full with his rotations and figuring out playing time, but there certainly could be worse problems for a head coach to have. The Nuggets have been competitive in every game, and though they could be 4-0 you really can’t ask for more at this point.
The Nuggets - Wolves could be the next great rivalry
This was a fun game to watch, not just for basketball reasons but to see how these players reacted to each other. Does anyone think Towns and Nurkic like each other in any way? I loved the intensity, the trash talk and the physicality between the two. And I especially loved how you could tell Nurk was getting under Towns’ skin.
We’re still a good playoff series away from it being a true rivalry, but this match up has all the makings for it with the youth movements on both sides. Hopefully something comes of it within the next few years.