The Denver Nuggets have dug themselves a massive hole against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and if they’re even going to attempt a series comeback Game 3 is as close to a must-win as possible. An 0-2 deficit is not insurmountable, but only 5 teams that lost both of those games on their home court have ever come back to win, and Denver’s lackluster effort to start the series against the teeth of Minnesota’s defense makes this an even tougher task. That said, the Nuggets are a battle-tested champion and will have to pass a gut check as well as execute against the top defense in the NBA to take Game 3. There’s no more time to wait – if the Nuggets want to avoid an early start to their offseason they’ll need a top-tier performance tonight.

The Essentials

Who: Denver Nuggets (0-2) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (2-0)

When: 7:30 PM MDT

Where: Target Center in Minneapolis, MN

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy…unless it’s the romanticized 18th century type. ESPN. League Pass for non-Nuggets market viewers. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.

Rival blog: Canis Hoopus

Injury report: Denver – Jamal Murray – questionable (calf), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – questionable (abdominal contusion), Reggie Jackson – questionable (calf), Vlatko Cancar – out (knee).  Timberwolves – nobody.

The Three Things

The thing to watch for: The first quarter start. Denver has come out listless and ineffective in nearly every first quarter stint to begin the playoffs. They have fallen behind by double-digits in every game so far. This was not a regular season habit – Denver regularly created large early leads with its starters – but in these playoffs they have not come out with the requisite energy, intensity and execution to keep pace with their competition let alone surpass them. The Timberwolves have made this glaringly apparent, as they play every possession on both end with limitless hustle and intensity, something the Nuggets did during their title run.

Anthony Edwards is a young monster. Rudy Gobert is an old and familiar foe. Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are defensive samurai out there, while Naz Reid and Mike Conley have taken Denver apart from deep. And there’s always KAT waiting around to make just the shots Denver doesn’t want made. This Minnesota team feels as hungry as that Denver squad was, while this year the Nuggets definitely haven’t shown the same fire. It’s easier to look good when you’re not being challenged though, so it’s up to Denver to challenge Minnesota’s intense playstyle with their own early and see if they can make the Timberwolves blink for the first time all series.

The thing to remember: Jokic is the MVP. He may not care much about the award, but he is the most valuable player in the NBA for a reason: everything goes through him and as he goes, the Nuggets go. These playoffs though he’s looked sluggish, without the extra gear he normally has, and unfortunately the rest of the squad has followed that trend. Nikola has been a counter-puncher all playoffs, allowing teams to dictate to him how he should play. He always tries to feel the game out – as coach Michael Malone says, he never tries to force the issue but lets the game come to him.

That said, his backcourt litters the injury report and his only reliable shooter in these playoffs has been Michael Porter Jr, who does not get enough shots to dent a ferocious Timberwolves attack if Jokic cannot get the offense started. Denver gets its efficiency from its MVP, as he forces teams to pick their poison, but down by two games Nikola will have to dictate terms to the Timberwolves and take the less-efficient basketball play even with teammates open. The Wolves are a great team with fast rotations and length everywhere. The casual lobs that worked against lesser squads will not cut it. Jamal Murray needs some of the wing pressure relieved because his lower body simply will not allow him to do the things Denver is used to seeing in the playoffs. Jokic needs to be precise and to put his stamp on the game, regardless of what the Wolves try to make him do. Him having an MVP-level statement game may be the only way Denver can take home this win.

The thing to bet: Jokic over 28.5 points (-122)

Look, I don’t know much but I don’t see Denver winning this game if Jokic doesn’t have 30+ points, and I’m picking Denver to win Game 3, so Jokic is gonna score 30+. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s now or next year for the Nuggets, so let’s see how much more pure magic Jokic can still summon this year.