The Denver Nuggets tasted defeat early in this matchup and now trail in a series for the first time in 2 postseasons as they lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves 106-99. Jamal Murray didn’t make a shot in the first half but finished with 17 points and 4 assists, while Nikola Jokic had 32 points on 25 shots, along with 8 rebounds and 9 assists. The reserves were all positives in their minutes – this loss came down to Denver’s starters falling behind by 14 points in the first quarter and then getting out-executed by the Timberwolves down the stretch in the fourth. Anthony Edwards had 43 points and 7 rebounds while Karl-Anthony Towns added 20 points, and Naz Reid made several big buckets in the final frame to finish with 16 points. Whatever lessons Denver needs to take from this have to be applied quickly – they’ve now lost home court and have to salvage a Mile-High split of the first two games on Monday.

Game Recap

KAT picked up a foul on the opening tip, but Anthony Edwards stopped Jamal and created a three-second violation on Nikola Jokic. Both teams then missed shots before Ant buried a three over KCP. Jamal barely grazed rim on a missed corner 3, and KAT made a traditional 3-point play to make it 6-0 Minnesota. Murray missed again, then fouled Ant for another traditional 3 while Jamal passed to Aaron Gordon for a dunk. Edwards hit another 3 for a 12-2 Timberwolves lead to force a timeout, though. Out of the timeout Denver missed again and Ant finished a drive the other way for 11 early points, and Jokic missed his second shot. MPJ hit a 12 footer to stop the bleeding, but Jokic was stripped on the next drive. MPJ missed a pullup, then had a turnover on a pass out to AG as Denver just looked confused down 16-4 halfway through the quarter and Rudy Gobert’s dunk made it a 14 point lead. Jokic made his first shot in 5 attempts for Denver’s third bucket of the game, then MPJ’s rebound turd into a Porter 3 off a Jokic screen. Gobert blocked MPJ’s next shot, but Mike got a steal and Jokic got to the line a couple of times as Denver went on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to 18-13 before a Reggie Jackson steal led to a beautiful hammer dunk by MPJ.

Reggie drove the hoop the next time down to cut it to 1 before Ant had another traditional 3-point play to stop Denver’s run. Jackson was in a groove as he hit a step-back 3, and MPJ’s free throws gave Denver its first lead at 22-21. Denver got a steal on the inbounds and Jokic buried a three over Towns as the arena roared down the stretch with Denver finishing the quarter up 25-23.

Porter grabbed a rebound for Denver but missed a three to start Denver’s scoring chances in the second. Jamal Murray missed his fourth shot of the game facing different defenders and playing a bit too slow. Porter made a three after getting dunked on at the other end, then Gordon got a steal off of Towns and it lead to a Christian Braun dunk. MPJ made a free throw to put Denver up 31-27, and Jokic backed down Gobert for a paint bucket. Edwards got his first bucket of the second quarter while Jokic and Reggie both missed shots before a steal turned into a Braun dunk.

Peyton Watson came in with some defense and rebounding, but the lack of shooting stagnated the offense. Watson was stuffed inside by Gobert then airballed a three the next time down while Ant made a bucket, but Jokic-to-KCP resulted in a three and a 38-32 Denver lead. Ant made a three and then grabbed a steal for a layup. Jokic missed a 3, but grabbed a rebound then lead the transition for a tough bucket past Gobert. Towns hit a three for Minnesota, Gordon finished an oop off a Jokic pass, then Jokic made a paint bucket in the closing seconds to put Denver up 44-40 at the half.

KAT opened the second half with a big three, but Gordon answered with a dunk, and then a Jokic steal turned into a Gordon kickout to MPJ for a three. KAT made a baseline floater, but Jamal’s buzzer-beating 3 got him his first make of the game. Jokic had a layup, Conley made a layup, Ant blocked MPJ’s layup, and KAT finished the other way to close Denver’s lead to 54-52. Jokic got called for a charge on KAT, but KCP made a 3 to halt KAT’s efforts. Jamal Murray made a circus reverse finish to get past Gobert for a bucket, and then MPJ’s steal led to free throws for Jokic.

Mike Conley made a three, then grabbed a steal and assisted a Naz Reid dunk to tie the game at 62. Murray and Conley exchanged buckets, Holiday hit a Jokic-assisted 3, and Ant buried his first jumper of the third. He made another one to give Minny a one point lead, then a missed Denver 3 lead to a Nickeil Alexander-Walker corner 3. Ant got a ridiculous tech after a nice baseline finish, Jokic got a paint bucket but MPJ missed a 3 and Denver went into the final frame down 73-71 after the Wolves went 14-of-19 in the quarter.

MPJ missed a three and KAT failed to back down AG to open the fourth, but Jamal Murray got to the line for free throws. Naz Reid had a glass finish, then MPJ’s block led to a Jamal Murray finish. Reid and Gordon exchanged layups, then Jamal Murray finished a 4 point play after KAT’s fifth foul on Murray’s 3. Ant finished a drive to put Minnesota back up 82-81, then drained a jumper after a Jokic travel. Christian Braun finally made a three, his first in the playoffs, but Reid answered with a bank three, then dunked back an Ant miss. Jokic finished through contact to make it 89-86 Minnesota, but Reid just kept attacking with another layup. Murray hit a runner, Naz Reid hit a 3, and Jokic made a tough finish through contact to close the deficit to 3. Gobert slammed home an offense rebound then broke up an oop attempt from Jokic to AG. Gobert kissed a 15 footer in off the glass, MPJ was called for an offensive foul on a deep jumper, and then Edwards slammed the door with a stepback under 2 minutes to go to put Minnesota up 102-91. Jokic made a paint shot and then a 3 to cut it to 6, but the ending was already locked in and Minnesota won 106-99.

Final Thoughts

– This is the same team that was sleep-walking to the series win over the Lakers. The problem is the Timberwolves are not the Lakers. The Nuggets came out slow and unprepared again, falling behind big early. Jamal Murray is struggling to get separation and has no afterburners whatsoever. He’s having to deploy a lot of Old Man Moves that did not work in the first half and had limited effectiveness in the second. Jokic was careless with the ball tonight, with 7 turnovers to go with his 9 assists, and also lacked his customary shooting touch. The Nuggets are not going to win a series where their two main players turn the ball over a bunch and cannot find efficient ways to score.

– Denver’s failure in the clutch was startling. The advantage Denver always has is its ability to run the 2-man game in the waning minutes, with a kickout to MPJ or KCP for an important 3. That did not happen tonight, nor were they able to turn away the Timberwolves on the other end. Some of that is luck (Minnesota was making bank shots out to 3, Naz Reid and Mike Conley could not miss, etc), and some is just Anthony Edwards being Him, but some of it was a failure on Denver’s part to force the issue. Aaron Gordon and KCP both fell short defensively. In fact, on both ends Denver was a passive acceptor of what Minnesota wanted rather than imposing themselves on either end. In a close game, the team that imposed its will won. Usually that is Denver, so they had better find that gear again if they want to win this series because Anthony Edwards and the Timberwolves are not going to let the Nuggets have even one easy thing the rest of the way.

– It’s going to be a long series. The Timberwolves played hungry and aggressive basketball, the Nuggets for the most part did not, but the playoff adjustments will be key – as will who steps up for both teams. Denver doesn’t look like they’re having fun out there, and I hope they find their playoff joy again soon. Defending a title is one of the hardest things in sports, and the grind can be soul-sucking. For a long series after a very long year, the Nuggets need to find the joy in competition to match Minnesota, and that more than anything is the challenge ahead for this squad. The tight, awkward play is not their style. Fans and players alike are taking these performances hard. The Nuggets have the skills to match and exceed the Timberwolves, but the onus is on Denver to do so. The next game in that struggle is on Monday.