The Denver Nuggets played hard but couldn’t come up with the right plays when it mattered, losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-104 in a scrappy but unsightly game. The Nuggets just could not stop Minnesota down the stretch nor find their own offensive legs in the final frame, getting outscored 32-20. Karl-Anthony Towns had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford combined for 45 points including crucial ones in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Nikola Jokic had 22 points but also 10 turnovers, most of them unforced. Not even 30 points from Jamal Murray, 15 from Trey Lyles and a double-double from Mason Plumlee could overcome Denver’s turnovers and poor defense in the end.
Murray, Craig, Plumlee, Jokic and Chandler started the game for Denver. Jokic immediately threw the ball out of bounds, but recovered with an assist on a 3-point make by Jamal Murray. Torrey Craig had a turnover of his own, stripped on the fast break, but then also hit a three. A steal and another Murray three made it 9-2 early in Denver's favor. A couple more early turnovers from Jokic hampered Denver's offensive attack, and Chandler passed up some inside shots for no apparent reason, but Denver still had a 14-10 lead with 6 minutes to go in the first.
Bumps do not stop Nikola passes. pic.twitter.com/BeTTqoJXN0— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 21, 2017
Jokic got some points from the line after Murray told him to shoot the ball (as reported on the broadcast by Chris Marlowe) but Chandler's miscues continued and Denver's 7 first quarter turnovers prevented what could have been an even bigger quarter. Will Barton had a block and a steal and Trey Lyles hit a three while Malik missed a couple, but what should have been a 15+ point lead was 7 just after one quarter at 24-17.
Towns hit a three to open the second quarter for Minnesota but Lyles answered by finishing an alley oop and Beasley finally hit his answering three. Lyles finished a three point play to get his 10th early point and pull the lead back to 10 at 34-24. Noted Nugget killer Jamal Crawford hit back-to-back threes, though, preventing Denver from pulling away. Denver's propensity for passing out of the paint for no reason remained maddening throughout the first half, but Jokic finally took his first shot with 7 minutes left in the half and made it - in the paint.
Think Nikola has always been more of a dog person. pic.twitter.com/N6wxPTMj9R— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 21, 2017
The Wolves stayed close with buckets from their young players Wiggins and Towns though, and a blown assignment gave Jimmy Butler an easly layup and cut the lead to one at 38-37. Jokic was incredibly out of sorts but all of Denver's offense lacked confidence and execution. Minnesota re-took the lead after another badly-missed Jokic three, but back-to-back threes from Murray and Lyles took it right back for the Nuggets. Plumlee blew a dunk, Wiggins hit another shot, but Will Barton had a give-and-go full-court layup and Denver went into the half up two, 52-50.
The two teams traded buckets for the first couple of minutes of the third quarter. Jokic hit a pair of threes and got a pair of turnovers, mixing the good and bad in almost equal portions. Craig botched a dunk into a turnover and Murray missed layup, costing Denver valuable breathing room on the scoreboard. Chandler finally finished a drive for his first two points in 24 minutes of play to that point and giving Denver a 64-58 lead. Then a Plumee steal turned into a screen and assist and a four point play for Jamal Murray. A Jokic-to-Chandler-to-Craig three pointer gave Denver an 11 point lead as Denver kept up its aggression after the half. Craig ripped a rebound and got to the line on the other end, Plumlee played the three-point-passer to Jokic's cutter for a completed 3 point play and Denver's lead grew to 14.
When the bench came in, though, Minnesota’s starters attacked the paint without Mason Plumlee present. Jokic’s 9th turnover led to the final basket on a 14-2 run by Minnesota and by the end of the quarter Denver was just up 4, 84-80.
Towns hit a pair of baskets to start the quarter to retake the lead for Minnesota briefly. Jamal Murray turned a near-turnover into a careening three point make, then made a drive through contact, but Minnesota got whatever they wanted inside on Denver to keep the lead at just 2 with eight minutes to go. The Timberwolves kept going to Towns drives that became easy finishes, to coach Michael Malone’s utter frustration.
Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford sank threes to make it 102-95 Timberwolves with under five minutes to go. The Nuggets fought back with a Chandler three and a Barton drive but stayed down by two for a couple of minutes. Jimmy Butler made free throws, then Murray made a contested drive, but Butler finished at the rim and hit a dead-eye two over Murray for a 6 point lead with 41.7 seconds to go. From there it was just a formality, with Minnesota taking the 112-104 victory.
Sometimes being too selfless is a problem. The Nuggets had 20 turnovers, 10 of them by Nikola Jokic. Chandler had more assists than points, which is definitely not his game. When Denver doesn’t want to shoot - and let’s be honest, Wilson Chandler, Will Barton and Nikola Jokic all didn’t want to shoot - they make too many passes hoping for someone to be willing to pull the trigger. Tonight they had too many passes and too few players willing to pull the trigger when it mattered, and when the shot they had was easier than the shot the Nuggets eventually wound up taking. Denver has to take care of the ball better and be willing to finish. That’s especially true for Jokic, Denver’s floor general who cannot give away that many possessions with foolish errors. There was no call for it.
It helps to hit your threes, but you also have to defend. Denver went 13-for-28 from behind the arc, shot 50% from the field and lost because they could not defend the paint in any scenario in which Plumlee was not in, or down the stretch of the fourth quarter. The Timberwolves had 52 points in the paint and 30+ points in each of the final three quarters of the game. Not having Gary Harris hurt, but he wasn’t going to be defending the paint either. How Torrey Craig knew what to do but the rest of the Nuggets had no idea what Towns was doing as he strolled down Main Street for layup after layup I’ll never know.
Passivity, careless over-passing, and an unwillingness to stop the ball on any drive to the paint cost Denver big in a game they were in the whole way and could have taken with a cleaner, smarter effort. These things happen over a long season, but in a tough stretch where Denver cannot afford to give games away - especially to rivals in the West - this game stings a little.