The Denver Nuggets came out flat, got flatter, and the Minnesota Timberwolves ground out a very important win for the playoff seedings 109-96. Denver had to play another game without Jamal Murray, and just like against the Phoenix Suns the offense was not up to Denver’s normal standards. They didn’t fastbreak (just 4 points) or make shots (39.8% from the field) and let Minnesota do too much of both, finishing their second straight loss while scoring under 100 points which Denver had not done since 2019. Nikola Jokic had 32 points and 10 boards but took 24 shots and had 13 free throws, while no one else scored more than 14. The Timberwolves had Anthony Edwards, Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert all with 20+ points, shot 51% from the field and generally played like they wanted it more.

Denver was down 19 at halftime, their worst halftime deficit at home since 2022. The Nuggets as a whole were just not on the same page at all on either side of the court. Minnesota kept their style of play, the Nuggets couldn’t find theirs, and that was all she wrote. The Timberwolves now have the tie-breaker in head-to-head over Denver, and the Nuggets fell to third place in the West with some decisions to make about what their goals are for the rest of the regular season – and how to achieve them.

Game Recap

The Nuggets won the tip and immediate went to Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon for a dunk. Jaden McDaniels drew a foul against AG and made his free throws, Gordon missed at the rim in return off an MPJ pass but Porter made a corner 3 the next time down after an Anthony Edwards transition bucket. Rudy Gobert dunked off a Mike Conley assist, and McDaniels made a three that MPJ answered. Gordon made a free throw but Conley banked in a stepback to make it 14-9. The Nuggets kept attacking the the rim though, with MPJ and Gordon making four more free throws. Rudy Gobert got a flopping tech and spent a minute yelling at the refs, and Ant dunked for Minnesota, while Reggie Jackson and Mike Conley traded threes. Gordon made a three of his own to make it 19-18 Minnesota halfway through the quarter. Jokic started 0-for-4 but made a Gordon-assisted floater to cut it to 24-22 Minnesota. Anderson banked in a shot and Denver missed a few shots until Christian Braun finished a transition layup. Gobert tipped in a miss over Joker, KCP missed a baseline jumper and a tip, and a traditional 3-point play from Rudy Gobert put Minnesota up 33-26 after one as Denver’s bench struggled to score even with Jokic on the floor and also couldn’t stop the point of attack.

Peyton Watson got called for a goaltend to start the second quarter, then Nickeil Alexander-Walker hit a pair of three sandwiched around a couple of bad misses for Denver to push Minnesota’s lead to 13. After some terrible offensive possessions, MPJ hit a jumper but Conley answered instantly with a floater. Gordon made another 3, Gobert euro-stepped around him on the other end for a bucket, and Deandre Jordan hit a finger roll at the hoop. Jordan McLaughlin’s made three for the Timberwolves forced Jokic back into the game with the Nuggets down 50-35, though, with his wrist taped up. Denver had some poor execution as Minnesota’s defense stagnated all of Denver’s wings while Minnesota had no problem scoring on the Nuggets. Jokic made a couple of layups through that defense, but Ant made outside shots over KCP and around AG, while Reggie Jackson was throwing balls out of play and KCP was dribbling out of bounds. Reggie hit a paint bucket, Justin Holiday could barely find the backboard from three on a miss, and AG turned it over as Minnesota waltzed into halftime up 62-43.

McDaniels opened the second half scoring with an easy pullup for Minnesota. MPJ made a pullup and grabbed a steal, but missed a pair of threes and Gordon’s turnover became a Conley three. Jokic scored on a one-handed bank shot but Ant hit a pullup over KCP. Gordon missed one dunk thanks to Gobert but made the next off an MPJ feed, but Minnesota kept scoring easily with a Conley layup. Nikola Jokic forced the Timberwolves to foul him and got them in the bonus early in the quarter, but Conley’s three put Minnesota up 74-50. Jackson made a pair of free throws for Denver, Conley hit another three, and Jokic put in a layup off an MPJ feed, then got to the line again trying to put a dent in that huge deficit. Denver just couldn’t make a shot from any spot on the court, with Jokic missing 11 of his first 17 shots of the game and Denver making just one three after the first until Braun finally made one with under 4 minutes to go in the third quarter. Justin Holiday made a three to follow, but Monte Morris fought for a loose ball and made a jumper and Denver just couldn’t close the game as Minnesota went into the 4th up 87-64.

Reggie Jackson threw an oop to Jordan to open the 4th, then forced a turnover. Holiday had a layup and Jordan got another oop from Reggie as the Nuggets cut the lead to 18, but then they went cold again and Denver’s turnover turned into Jaden McDaniels dunking in transition and hanging on the rim for a good 8 seconds during a timeout to style on the Nuggets. Jokic came back in down 21 with 7 minutes to go. He made a bucket, then a Minnesota turnover became another Joker basket. Nikola and Gobert traded baskets, and a 24 second clock violation was forced by MPJ, but despite Malone putting his starters back out there with Braun in for KCP, Minnesota milked the clock as Denver hacked Gobert. He made both, then blocked Jokic’s shot. Braun made a three to make it 102-86 Minnesota with 3:13 to go, and Jokic went inside along with MPJ to try to make something happen. It was 103-92 with 1:40 to go but the Nuggets needed everything to go right and it did not. Denver’s starters got to enjoy their normal shifts because Malone doesn’t believe in white flags and still lost by double digits 111-98.

Final thoughts:

– Denver’s starters are beat up, and that’s a bad omen. Sometimes a March basketball game is just ugly – it happens. But this is a game that Denver had several reasons to get up for and the time to prep. Jamal Murray still couldn’t play, and Malone indicated before the game he wasn’t sure he would play the matinee on Sunday either. It’s not just a matter of one starter being out – although Reggie Jackson had a disastrous first half and the bench without him couldn’t muster any offense either. Denver let Minnesota dictate terms on both sides of the court, and that is not their M.O. when they are playing right. If this is all the starters have to offer at this point and they are all this battered and out-of-sorts, then they need to prioritize health the rest of the way. Nikola Jokic had to have his wrist taped in the first half. Aaron Gordon has been on the injury report for several games now with various ailments. Jamal Murray has three different lower-body injuries that are hampering him. Reggie Jackson and KCP both look exhausted, and Michael Porter Jr. could use a couple days in the sun.

This is not Nuggets basketball, and there’s no reason to keep grinding all the starters down trying to compensate for missing players in a battle for the #1 seed. Seeding is not the ultimate goal for Denver – that has to be health. We know how this works because we saw it last year when the Nuggets punted March and destroyed teams April through June. This time they’d have to do more of that on the road, but so what? The starters at 80% are getting washed, and the bench cannot pick up the slack. So the rest of this season the Nuggets need to make sure to keep the 3 seed while also resting starters who very obviously need it, and hope to rekindle the magic of last year’s playoff run with better health – no matter what other teams might have home court advantage. Denver can win on the road now; this is not the pre-champion version of the team. What they can’t do is win it all when they  can barely walk. Health now, and then take your swings when the post-season starts. Someone will just have to sit on Malone every game and make sure he follows that priority list.