Before Tuesday night’s game between the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves tipped-off, Michael Malone took to the media to plead for a different approach from his young team. At seemingly every availability in the last few weeks, Malone has made a point to call back a phrase he coined in late September. According to their Head Coach, this team’s identity is rooted not just in how they play, but why. At their best, this team doesn’t just play with each other, they play for each other, which Malone has identified as the missing ingredient in their underwhelming play of late.
His guys played for the right reasons in a 133-107 blowout at home.
Part of what had been wearing Malone thin is a lack of what he would describe as unselfish possessions—possessions in which the ball stays moving, and most importantly, goes through their best player in Nikola Jokic. There were plenty of those in an ideal first quarter that Malone’s actual doctor might have ordered in an effort to reduce stress.
The ball went through ‘The Joker’ early and often, as Jokic took a team-high five shot attempts in his nine-plus first quarter minutes. He racked up six points, four boards, four assists, and set the tone for an offense that hummed all night long. The Nuggets dropped 31 in the first 12 minutes, shooting 60 percent from the field and assisting on 11 of their 23 field goals.
The Nuggets have been a surprisingly good defensive team since the All-Star break. In fact, before the game Malone quipped that this might be the first time in three years that the offense is holding his team back.
The resurgence of that offense didn’t come at any expense on the other end as the Nuggets held the Wolves to just 20 total points in the first despite nine early points from an active Karl Anthony-Towns.
Perhaps the most noteworthy development of the first quarter though was the absence of Isaiah Thomas. Prior to the game, Malone expressed a willingness to shorten the rotation at some point between now and the start of the playoffs. Thomas is the only obvious candidate for an excision, and he did not check in with the rest of the second unit as the first quarter neared its conclusion. Monte Morris collected five points, two rebounds, and an assist in just over five minutes. He was a +13 during that stretch.
The second quarter would play out a little differently as the Wolves were able to outscore Denver behind a strong effort from their best player. Towns scored on seemingly every touch, but Denver kept pace on the other end and were able to mitigate the damage by turning in another decent effort on offense. There was little to take note of, save for the continued absence of Isaiah Thomas, who would never enter the game.
The Nuggets would have not one, but two chances to separate themselves from the Wolves in the third quarter, a quarter in which the league’s best teams are notorious for putting their feet on their opponents throats. It’s perhaps the last mark of a great regular season team that we can’t yet ascribe to Denver.
The Nuggets opened up a 16 point lead with just 6:55 remaining and had several chances to effectively slam the door shut. But they briefly lost focus and devolved back into low-IQ and selfish basketball, allowing the Wolves to cut the deficit back to single digits.
Ever on-brand, Denver’s resident veteran, Paul Millsap, stopped the bleeding and redirected the flow of momentum by hitting three triples in the final four minutes of the quarter. He was the catalyst behind a run that took any remaining wind out of Minnesota’s sails.
The Nuggets led 91-78 as the game moved to the final quarter.
For all that Denver has done right this season, they’ve struggled to blow out their opponents, even when they look ready to roll over. It was particularly encouraging to watch them do just that given how uninspired they’ve looked over their last handful of games. The rotation players pushed the lead all the way to 25 points in the final minutes, allowing Denver’s reserves to take the court.
Thomas Welsh checked in with just under three minutes remaining—which is only noteworthy because I’m writing the recap and there’s no way in hell that I’m not shoehorning this in.
Following the win, Denver moves to 44-22 on the season and 28-6 at home. The Nuggets will stay home and wait for the Dallas Mavericks who come to town on Thursday for another nationally televised game. That game will tip off at 8:30 pm MT and you can catch it on TNT.