After a successful one game trip to LA, the Denver Nuggets were back in the friendly confines of The Can to take on a divisional foe in the Minnesota Timberwolves. A sluggish start might have had Denver concerned about letting this one get away but Nikola Jokic would have none of it as the Joker was a do it all machine tonight and once again came oh so close to getting a triple double. Danilo Gallinari and Gary Harris also had big nights for Denver and they were able to hold off a pesky Timberwolves teamn at the buzzer to get a nice divisional win.
The Nuggets started the game with an interesting wrinkle on defense, electing to guard Karl-Anthony Towns with Wilson Chandler, rather than Jokic, and doubling Towns anytime he got the ball. To start the game it was effective, but Andrew Wiggins carried the scoring load in Towns’ stead. On the positives for Denver early in the game, it only took about three minutes before Jokic dropped one of his trademark dimes, hitting a cutting Harris for a dunk. Gallinari and Harris were impressive early, Gallo was going shot for shot with Wiggins and Harris had some nice chemistry with Jokic. Unfortunately, the poor defense that has been festering for the past week or so was prevalent again and the T-Wolves were able to race out to a 21-14 lead with just under five minutes to play. Denver’s bench wouldn’t improve much on D as the quarter closed and that would leave the Nuggets trailing 31-22 after one.
Coach Michael Malone opened the second quarter with a surprise by inserting Jusuf Nurkic into the game, likely to try to deter the Minnesota onslaught on the rim. The Bosnian Beast did exactly that and Denver on the whole played much better defense in the second quarter. Nurkic also provided Denver with a boost on offense that they desperately needed and behind his performance the Nuggets had whittled the T-Wolves lead down five as the game neared the halfway point of the second quarter. That got the Nuggets bench unit energized and was part of an 11-0 run that tied the game at 37. Coach Malone was full of surprises in the second quarter, at the five minute mark he went to the Jurkic lineup, something Denver hasn’t tried in over a month. To coach’s credit the early returns on that front court pairing were not good so he quickly went back to his starting unit and didn’t go to pairing Jokic and Nurkic on the floor again. The Wolves ran their offense through Towns, and that combined with some poor defense on Wiggins allowed them to keep pace with Denver and the half closed with the score all tied up at 49.
The Nuggets opened up the second half with the same defensive strategy they utilized to open the first half against Towns and he responded exactly as he should: by passing out of the double team to a wide open jump shooter. The Nuggets responded with some hot shooting from beyond the arc, particularly from Chandler, and of course a healthy dose of all things Jokic. Harris also got in the action with a pair of nice drives to the hoop, the second he finished off with an emphatic jam, and then took a nice feed from Jokic for another layup. All that action resulted in a 10-2 run for the Nuggets. Once again a run sparked Denver and suddenly everything was going right. Kenneth Faried was hitting jump shots, Emmanuel Mudiay was finishing through traffic and Jokic was rejecting Zach LaVine at the rim. All in all it was an outstanding quarter for Denver and they closed it out with an 81-73 lead.
Denver opened the fourth quarter much like they did the third with the majority of their scoring coming from three. However, Lavine started getting hot for the Wolves and he powered a mini 7-0 run to get Minnesota back within three before Jamal Murray had one of the prettier drives to the basket you’ll see this season. Shortly after that Jokic checked back in and immediately snagged a board, eluded the defense with a behind the back dribble and then fed Chandler with a half court pass for an easy transition dunk...ridiculous. Denver got the lead up to ten but a couple of ticky tack calls on Murray put the Timberwolves in the penalty with still more than six minutes to go in the quarter. The lead got down to six before Gallinari got a clutch basket and a pair of free throws to get it back to double digits. Towns would respond for Minnesota and some sloppy execution on offense by the Nuggets let the Wolves get back within four with two minutes to play. Towns continued take over, guiding a 12-2 run by the Wolves to tie the game at 103 with a minute to go. After some scrambling on offense Gallinari banked in a two point shot with 27 seconds left get the lead back for the Nuggets. Wiggins would take the ball to the net on the Wolves final possession but elected to go for a finger roll layup instead of a dunk and was vicously reject by Chandler. Harris chased down the rebound and smartly threw the ball to the other side of the court before he fell out of bounds. LaVine would retrieve it and have time for one last three point attempt but he would miss and the Nuggets escaped with a 105-103 victory.
Best match up: Nikola Jokic vs Gorgui Dieng
Because the Nuggets put either Faried or Chandler on Towns for the majority of the game and also doubled him when ever he touched the ball that left Jokic guarding Dieng. Towns wouldn’t do much in terms of scoring, but he filled up the stat sheet with assists and Dieng was typically the benefactor of them. Dieng seemed to catch the Nuggets off guard with his shooting ability. They consistently left him open or failed to rotate on him after the double team on Towns and he capitalized. Of course, as good as Dieng was, he wasn’t as good as Jokic. Nikola was his regular do it all self tonight and had no problem filling up the boxscore. It was more than just points rebounds and assists however, it was also the little things. He had excellent defensive positioning, he made smart screens and he had just some absurd sequences...in a good way.
Main thing I noticed: Jusuf Nurkic made a difference
It was interesting that coach Malone didn’t go back to Nurkic in the second half because in the limited minutes he got in the first half he was quite effective. In fact he bailed out the Nuggets in the second quarter when it looked like they might let this game slip away. Nurkic’s defensive presence set the tone while he was in and he also used his size to bully his way points on offense. I don’t think this performance alone is going to get Nurkic back into the regular rotation but it is promising to see that in his limited time he was able to be so effective.
Closing thought: Nikola Jokic is a star
I don’t think there’s any more arguing that Jokic is a fluke or his advanced stats make him seem better than he really is. The kid is flat out amazing. The highlight below shows just how many things he can do in a single play and then when you remember this is a center doing those things it makes it even more evident that the future is very bright for Nikola. Furthermore, it appears coach Malone knows Nikola is a star as well. The Nuggets pretty much ran the offense through the Joker and he didn’t make the coach regret it. He’s by far the best passing big in the game, and he’s also one of the most versatile players you’ll ever see. Big things coming for the Nuggets, big things coming for Jokic...stay tuned.