The Denver Nuggets never really had a rival. Oh the fans will tell you how much they hate the Los Angeles Lakers, they will recount all the times the Lakers ousted them from the playoffs, bemoan how toxic their fanbase is, yell from the mountaintops that they always get a favorable whistle but that’s the same story that fifteen other fanbases will tell you (every western conference team, plus the Boston Celtics). The Lakers run of success spans decades, if you’ve been a fan of your team for any significant amount of time, you’ve felt hatred towards a franchise that always seems to get the better of your team. Hell, even with the recent run of success the Nuggets have against L.A. the overall franchise head to head record in the playoffs still tilts strongly in L.A.’s favor. No, saying the Lakers are the Nuggets rival is a cop out.

Rivalries are built over time, but they gain true fortitude in the playoffs when the stakes are the highest. For the Nuggets there just really hasn’t been enough deep playoff runs to truly build rivalries. In the late 70s and into the 80s when the team first made their way into the NBA there was a couple teams that the Nuggets saw on more than one occasion in the postseason: the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs & the Lakers. However, they never got to consistently see those teams year in and year out in high stakes playoff moments and other than the two Phoenix series in the early 80s, those matchups were pretty lopsided from a team record and expectations standpoint (though the seventh seeded Nuggets did give the second seeded Jazz a run for their money in 1984). They were also almost always first round matchups.

For a team to truly create a rival you’ve got to feel the pain of having a season with championship expectations get snuffed out by the opposition. That’s probably why Nuggets fans feel like the Lakers are their biggest rival, L.A. is really the only team to beat Denver when they had a legitimate shot to make the NBA Finals (see: ’85, ’09, ’20) meanwhile the Nuggets haven’t done much destroying of legitimate title hopes in the playoffs either. The ’83 Suns and the ’20 Los Angeles Clippers are probably the only teams outside of last year’s Lakers team that legitimately felt like a contender until they lost to the Nuggets. Perhaps there was something brewing between Denver and the Portland Trail Blazers after both team’s dealt the other a series loss in the 2020s but Portland quickly pivoted to a rebuild and so the Nikola Jokic/Damian Lillard epic playoff duels got cut off at the knees. Same goes for the Donovan Mitchell Jazz even though those teams only met once in the postseason. And yet, there is one Western Conference team that appears to be ready for the challenge, that appears to have a championship window that is opened during the same period as the Nuggets window and that has some playoff history with Denver already brewing. That team is the Nuggets second round opponent this playoffs: the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Nuggets and Wolves have met twice in the playoffs. The first time really has no relevance on the current teams. Back in 2004, Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets to the postseason as a rookie where they were met with the prime Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell Wolves. It went exactly as one might expect between a team in it’s prime with championship aspirations and a team that made it into the playoffs as an eight seed on the back of a rookie. The Wolves gave the Nuggets a gentlemen’s sweep in a fairly chippy series before ultimately losing to the Lakers in the western conference finals in what would be Garnett’s last real chance at a title in Minnesota (like I said, all Western Conference teams have a bone to pick with L.A.). For the rest of the decade Minnesota descended into a rebuild while the Nuggets continued to be first round fodder for a plethora of teams.

After that, the two teams didn’t have any sort of significant battles with playoff implications for a decade and a half, but then 2018 came. The Nuggets and Wolves were both teams on the rise. Denver went all-in on building their franchise around Jokic and were starting to climb the mountain back to relevancy. Similarly, the Wolves had a pair of number one overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and a veteran core around them that was bringing the Wolves back to relevance after a long and painful rebuilding process. These teams on the rise met for what would end up being the beginning of the inspiration to create the play-in tournament: a winner takes all game 82. Both teams had a record of 46-35 going into the final game of the season and seven other teams in the West already had 47 or more wins. It just so happened that Denver and Minnesota faced each other on the last game of the season and thus there was no need for tie-breaker scenarios, no need for scoreboard watching, those teams went into that night knowing only one thing would earn them a postseason birth: a win.

That game ended up feeding generations. It was close throughout. Just when Minnesota looked like they had it going up eight with four minutes to go Jokic and Jamal Murray ripped off an 8-0 run to tie it. It was back and forth down the stretch and the Nuggets had a chance to win it in regulation but Jokic was stripped by Taj Gibson in the corner. Overtime was just as tight, they traded leads pretty much throughout, but ultimately the Wolves had a little more and iced the game late on some Wiggins free throws. That could have been the start of a rivalry right there with both teams on the rise. Unfortunately, the veterans surrounding Minnesota’s pair of young picks faded quickly while Jimmy Butler infamously punked his entire team during a practice and demanded a trade which then set off another mini-rebuild for Minnesota. It was a blessing in disguise.

After securing yet another number one overall pick the Wolves got Anthony Edwards, and as good as Butler is, Ant is a clear and massive upgrade. Minnesota moved on from Wiggins, brought in a new collection of veterans to put around Edwards and Towns and got back to the playoffs as a seven seed in ’22 where they lost in six games to the Memphis Grizzlies. First round exits weren’t good enough with Edwards making it clear he was a rising star in the league and so Minnesota hired away Tim Connelly, the Nuggets president of basketball operations, who then went all-in by trading five first round picks to acquire Rudy Gobert as the final piece of the puzzle.

Those moves didn’t bring immediate dividends. Minnesota once again found themselves in a play-in tournament they helped to create, lost the first game in overtime against the Lakers before winning against the Oklahoma City Thunder to squeak in as the eighth and final seed of the playoffs, earning them a first round matchup with…the Denver Nuggets. As the top seed Denver was a clear favorite and they looked as much. The Nuggets handed a blowout to the Wolves in game one, seemed to get almost bored of the Wovles by halftime of game two (led to a classic Nuggets sequence of blow a big lead in the third quarter then lock-in and take care of business in the fourth) and put a stranglehold on the series with a nine point victory on Minnesota’s home floor in game three. In fact, if Jokic just makes his free throws down the stretch of game four then Minnesota likely gets swept. In the end Minny prevailed in overtime in game four and Denver gave them the gentlemen’s with an exciting down to the wire battle in game five.

Despite that series being one sided, you could almost see Edwards rising to super stardom in real time. In that game five he refused to let the Wolves be beaten and kept them in the game all the way up until the final moment when his three point attempt to tie rimmed out. The Nuggets of course went on to win their first NBA title, while the Wolves bided their time, got healthy and prepared to make a run this season. They held the pole position as the West’s number one seed for most of the year before sputtering while Towns recovered from a knee injury and ultimately ending up as the three seed. Despite slipping a bit it was a marked improvement from last year. Additionally, the Wolves are healthy again with Towns back and role players Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid available, something they didn’t have last year.

It’s all led up to a rematch of last year, this time in the Western Conference Semifinals, and despite there being still two more rounds to go after this one, many feel this matchup between Denver and Minnesota is the de facto NBA finals. This is when rivalries start to get made. We’ve got some playoff history but it’s been one sided. We’ve got an iconic battle, but it lasted only one game. We’ve also got plenty of familiarity with these teams being in the same division plus the Connelly factor. Now, in 2024, we’ll get it all. Additionally, Nikola Jokic & Aaron Gordon are the oldest member of Denver’s core at age 28 and while Minnesota depends a lot on Gobert who turns 32 this Summer, they have plenty of key pieces (Edwards, Towns, McDaniels, Reid, Nickeil Alexander-Walker) that are all 28 or younger as well. I’m going to hazard a guess that this won’t be the last postseason matchup for these iterations of the Nuggets and Wolves but it is the first where both teams fully believe they are going to win a title. That will make emotions run high and game atmospheres extremely intense and those conditions create lasting memories, for better or worse. The Denver Nuggets first true rival is here.