For perhaps the first time in these playoffs, the Denver Nuggets finally looked like the defending champions they are as they downed the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-90. The crowd lustily booed Jamal Murray every time he touched the ball and he responded with 24 points and 5 assists, while Nikola Jokic had another Sombor Double finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds and 9 assists. Michael Porter Jr. had 21 points despite foul trouble and Aaron Gordon added 3 three-pointers as the Nuggets finished the first quarter with an 8 point lead and never looked back. Anthony Edwards had 19 / 6 / 5 but Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert combined for just 20 points and 9 rebounds as the Nuggets went 14-of-29 from deep and won the rebounding battle by 8 as well. The Timberwolves just had no answers tonight for a motivated Denver squad that finally performed up to their capabilities, making this a series despite Minnesota still leading it 2-1.

Game Recap

The Nuggets won the tip and the battle commenced immediately, with Minnesota forcing a Denver miss but KCP nailing a jumper after the Jokic rebound, then Murray going back down court for a contested layup. Anthony Edwards nailed a 3 for the Timberwolves, Aaron Gordon missed one for Denver, and another three this time from KAT made it 6-4 Minnesota early. Jokic passed to AG for a dunk, MPJ nailed a three that KAT answered, and Ant blocked a Porter shot to keep it 9-9. MPJ got to the free throw line a couple of times to grind out some points, which Rudy Gobert answered with a dunk. KCP missed a three but Porter made a layup, while Ant and Jamal Murray exchanged buckets. Naz Reid got past Jokic for a score, but Jokic got to the line and made 1-of-2. Murray and Jokic both made buckets to push the Denver lead to 5 at 21-16, and Murray answered a Nickeil Alexander-Walker 3 with a shifty 2-pointer, then Justin Holiday buried a deep shot to quiet the crowd. Edwards made a nice driving layup for Minnesota, but Jokic finished off the glass in the waning seconds and Denver took a 28-20 lead into the second.

Justin Holiday and Jamal Murray both made threes to open the second quarter scoring, with Towns answering one of them with a three of his own. Murray left a turnaround short but MPJ hit free throws and KCP exchanged buckets with Ant. Denver’s cutting and passing offense started showing up though with Christian Braun getting a feed from Jokic and Jamal making a tough baseline finish to put Denver up 42-25. Christian Braun hit at three, Rudy Gobert got a reverse dunk and then Ant made a layup. Mike Conley’s 3 cut the lead to 45-32, but Porter hit a layup for Denver then got his third foul of the half and had to sit. Jokic made a jumper, Reggie Jackson made free throws, but on the other end Denver’s defense stayed stout despite Jokic following a recipe of going for rebounds and avoiding defensive fouls. Naz Reid and Mike Conley free throws, Jamal made a tough jumper, and NAW got a dunk to make it 53-38. Murray canned a three in response though after a ton of ball movement, and despite KAT’s three Denver went into the half up 56-41.

Jaden McDaniels opened the second half with a dunk, while Aaron Gordon made an above-the-break three and KCP hit a deep pullup for Denver. Ant nailed a three for Minnesota, Murray answered with a paint stepback, and Mike Conley finished in the paint. Jokic missed a three but Denver kept rebounding and pushing and AG hit another trey, then yet another this time from the corner, and MPJ’s three on the next possession made it 72-50 Denver. McDaniels got another dunk, but KCP got fouled on a 3 to keep the pressure on and made all his free throws. Ant made another 3 for Minnesota, then nailed a pullup to cut the deficit to 18, but Jokic calmly banked in a runner to stem the tide. Ant made another layup though after Murray missed a 3 and then Jokic got called for an offensive foul. He hit a turnaround hook the next time down though, then there was another flurry of offensive foul calls against both teams for some reason. Jokic took a great pass from Murray for a floater, then hit Gordon for the dunk and Denver went back up 83-59. Reid and Jokic exchanged threes, Jokic and Reggie Jackson made jumpers, and Denver wrapped the third quarter up 93-66.

NAW hit a pair of free throws for Minnesota to begin the final frame, while Christian Braun missed a 3 and committed a foul. The Wolves started the quarter with several free throws as well as a dunk from McDaniels, but Murray hit a stepback and MPJ made a 3 to answer. McDaniels had another dunk, MPJ missed an oop attempt from Jokic, but Jokic tipped in his own miss to make it 100-75 Denver with 4 minutes gone. Jamal missed an early dagger attempt but then a steal and an AG pass led to a Murray dunk followed by an Ant turnover. Porter buried another three for Denver, NAW airballed one for Minnesota and Denver controlled the action the rest of the way. Jokic’s paint bucket put Denver up 32 and Minnesota pulled its starters. Half a quarter of garbage time for reserves – with the first career playoff points for Julian Strawther and Hunter Tyson – really drove home the point that Denver dominated this one in every facet as the final margin of victory for the Nuggets was 117-90.

Final Thoughts

– Denver didn’t get flustered. The play in the final minute of the first half where they just moved the ball past all the defensive nonsense that Minnesota was doing until a wide-open Murray calmly nailed a 3 was a perfect encapsulation of how Denver won a title last year and what they have not been doing in these playoffs:

The Nuggets made early decisions. The passes that were made were necessary, and because they were willing to move the ball across the court early it forced Minnesota to show its hand on defense. In the first 2 games, too much of Denver’s post-up game consisted of him getting doubled and just tapping it back out to the perimeter while Minnesota stayed home. Tonight there were swing passes, skip passes, a no-look to the dunker slot for an open jumper… the Nuggets had several options to open Minnesota’s aggressive defense and they used them all. Michael Porter Jr. attacking Rudy Gobert on perimeter switches to get to the hoop was a big part of Denver’s early approach and it worked out perfectly. Jokic had just 7 points at the half but was dominating the game with his passing and screening, and it made Gobert a non-factor on him because Nikola stayed out of the paint in the beginning while Denver’s shooters set the tone. I expected Jokic to need to score a lot tonight but instead Denver simply created open shots by moving Minnesota’s defenders around like chess pieces and then knocked down those looks.

– Defense, defense, defense. Not to go all Michael Malone, but defense wins and Denver played winning defense. Christian Braun and KCP did a masterful job against Anthony Edwards early, holding him to 9 points on only 8 shots rather than letting him get in a groove. Throughout the game it was Minnesota caving to the pressure and the need to execute in the half-court, and it resulted in 16 turnovers and a poor shooting night as their first option was continually denied. Minnesota does not have an offense built to execute a complicated half court game. They make their open threes and they tend to get good shots off the turnovers they create. But if the deep shot isn’t falling and Ant can’t get to the hoop through his regular heroics, they require their defense to make the game into a wallow in the mud, and tonight it was Denver who created the mud pit on one end but glided over the muck on the other.

– One win in this series finally achieved, three to go. This isn’t enough. It’s great that Denver had shot variance go their way for once and played a confident, aggressive plan, but the Timberwolves still lead this dance and if Denver wants to extend their playoff stay past this round they likely need another win in Minnesota on Sunday. Going back to Denver tied at 2 puts all the pressure on Minnesota. Denver has dealt with championship pressure, but this is the first real go-round for the Timberwolves. Denver needs to turn up that heat on the Wolves and see what cracks. One win against this excellent Wolves squad is great – now do it three more times.