Nikola Jokic played a magnificent game, finishing with 35 points and 10 rebounds, with both Barton and Murray scoring over 20 points, but the bench struggled again and their defense couldn’t prevent points in the paint in the most important game of the season.
Jimmy Butler lead the Timberwolves with 31 points, including some clutch free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, and Taj Gibson got the chance to lock up Jokic on defense down the stretch, delivering Minnesota their first postseason berth in 13 seasons.
Barton and Jokic started the game with an aggressive style of play, with Barton tossing in a couple of 3-pointers and getting to the free throw line. Millsap threw the ball away trying to inbounds the ball to Jamal Murray, kicking off a series of turnovers that allowed the Timberwolves to go on an 11-3 run to take the lead, 24-19. The Nuggets battled back in the final minutes, with Jokic flipping in a runner with 0.9 seconds to draw the score to 29-26.
Karl-Anthony Towns started heating up in the second quarter, with a couple big dunks to get the crowd standing out of their seats. The Nuggets were countering by scoring on each possession, but a few turnovers and missed shots turned into an 8-2 run that gave Minnesota a seven point lead. Jamal Crawford leaked out in transition, but the outlet was off target - no matter, because the veteran guard found Butler streaking down the lane unchecked for a big dunk that triggered a timeout by Michael Malone.
The Nuggets scored after the timeout, but the Wolves still had the momentum with Jimmy Butler feeling confident. Towns had another big dunk as the Nuggets defense could offer no rim protection (they were going with a small-ball lineup with Millsap at center), and Butler was fouled on a 3-point attempt. Jamal Murray went on a five point run, with a 3-pointer and two free throws, and that helped quiet down the crowd a few decibels. The Nuggets could have done a better job closing out the quarter, but things could have gone worse. Towns has three fouls, and the Nuggets shot 58 percent from the free throw line.
The Nuggets need to clean up their game in the second half, cutting out the careless turnovers and try to defend the paint better. The Timberwolves had 24 points in the paint, and made nearly half of their 3-point attempts, going 6-14, but that included two end of quarter heaves. The defense needs to improve - they had one block and one steal at halftime, and they’re letting Minnesota score with ease at the rim. If they can continue to rebound well, limit open shots in transition, and execute on offense, that should in turn help their defense, and they’ll have a chance to rally in the third and fourth quarter. It doesn’t feel good though, with how Butler and Towns are playing - the Nuggets have a bigger mental hurdle to overcome than the mathematical hurdle on the scoreboard.
Jokic started the third quarter with four straight points, Barton knocked in a three, and in a blink, it was 64-61 Minnesota. The good vibes from that quick run ended with three consecutive turnovers though, and Paul Millsap had to restore order by getting to the free throw line. Jokic was in a fierce mood, and started just dropping in jumpers, raging against the physical Wolves defense.
The Nuggets threw a ton of punches at the Timberwolves for the remainder of the quarter, with Jokic playing very assertive on offense while the team ramped up the intensity on defense. You have to give Minnesota credit though, because no matter how hard Denver hit them, they wouldn’t be knocked down, and the Nuggets were only able to gain three points on them.
The Nuggets started the fourth quarter with an alley-oop to Mason Plumlee, and the Timberwolves had missed seven straight until Gorgui Dieng knocked in a midrange jumper to bump their lead back up to five points. Jokic picked up his fourth foul trying to defend Butler, with just under eight minutes in the game, but there’s no way he can check out at this point.
Butler started his quest to deliver a playoff berth for the Timberwolves with a pair of free throws and a midrange jumper to increase the lead to seven. The Nuggets went on an incredible small run, tying up the score at 99 with 2:51 remaining. Both teams would score one more time before the final seconds, but it was tied at 101 with 4.4 seconds remaining.
Millsap inbounded the ball to Jokic, who was forced into the corner by Gibson, and lost the ball out of bounds trying to flail for a foul call on a shot attempt. The Timberwolves didn’t draw up a very smart play with just over a second left, and Jamal Crawford badly missed a 3-pointer, meaning the game was headed to overtime.
Jimmy Butler cracked in a basket to get the first points in overtime, but Will Barton made pie out of poop on the other end to give the Nuggets a lead, 104-103. Butler made two free throws, but Millsap answered with a midrange jumper to keep the Nuggets lead at one. Jeff Teague tossed in a prayer to put the Timberwolves up, and the Nuggets inexplicably sent Jokic into a postup on Gibson, who forced another miss and a shot clock violation for a turnover. Butler was able to get into the paint and get fouled again, but split the free throws to give Denver a chance. The Nuggets had an ugly possession, as their ability to mentally compete was gone, and Barton wound up missing a runner in the lane.
The Nuggets weren’t able to get a basket the rest of the game, and the Timberwolves came out on top after a hard fought game. They earned their playoff spot with a lot of hard work, sweat, perseverance, and talent. The Nuggets? They’ll be enjoying their summer with the other 14 lottery teams in the league.
Three closing thoughts
If vets help teams win games, Denver had the wrong ones tonight. In an elimination game, here’s the point totals from the Nuggets veterans:
- Millsap - 10 points
- Chandler - 0 (zero) points
- Plumlee - 3 points
- D. Harris - 4 points
This can’t happen. You’re paying those first three guys over $50 million a year to help you win games, and when they’re needed the most ... nothing. I hope they go into the postseason knowing that when their team needed them, they came up short. Turn that into motivation, work hard, and resolve to come back better next year.
The young guys didn’t know how to win. This isn’t a criticism - it’s like mocking an elementary school student for not knowing calculus. But over the final minutes of the game, someone (either the players or the coaches) decided it would be acceptable to keep posting up Jokic on Gibson. The refs were letting Gibson mangle Jokic as he tried to get positioning, and Gibson sat on Jokic’s shoulder, denying him a clear path to getting to his right hand. They couldn’t get stops, they couldn’t get to the free throw line, and they couldn’t get good shot attempts. Game over.
But this is a learning experience, and the young guys, this is to be expected. They need to make mistakes to grow. The future is bright, and once they get a coaching staff and supporting cast built for success around them, they’ll be fine.
This should be a pivotal offseason. The front office really mucked up their team building efforts last year, whiffing in their negotiations with Plumlee and dropping the ball during the draft. They can extend Jokic this summer, but they’ll need to wait on Arthur and Chandler to decide what they want to do before they make free agency moves. They need to bring back Barton, and they need to cut bait on some ... dead money for some of the players they have on the roster that don’t play.
They also need to make a decision on their head coach. If they decide making a change is the right decision, they need to find a coach that will commit to Jokic on offense and develop a league-average defense with the personnel they have. If they decide to keep Malone, he certainly has a strong argument for sticking around for one more year. If he stays, he needs to be on the hot seat, especially if the defense sucks ass again. I think Malone has earned the right to return - I wouldn’t miss him if he is fired.
I’m not expecting a lot of change for the roster, but it would be very welcome. Denver needs big wings and a backup point guard. If they extend Jokic, they won’t have any money to spend in free agency.
Missing the playoffs sucks.