How Did Things Unspool On the Wolves In Game 3?

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

No team has ever come back from being down 3-0 in an NBA series. People overuse that line so much that NBA fans know it by heart. Entering Game 3 at Target Center, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets had much to prove. The defending champs needed to avoid flirting with the impossible. Minnesota was attempting to win a seventh straight playoff game and continue extending their record streak. They would have set themselves up for back-to-back sweeps and a trip to the Conference Finals by winning on Saturday.

Instead, Denver beat them 117-90.

Game 3 started with an odd jump ball in which Rudy Gobert didn’t jump. Boos rained down every time Jamal Murray touched the ball, but Denver’s quicker-moving offense stifled them quickly after they started. After the Nuggets jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead, Edwards knocked down a three to let the home crowd be seated. The Nuggets pushed the pace, with Murray attempting to switch to Karl Anthony Towns. However, despite Denver’s attempt to get into their offense more quickly,  Minnesota’s defense was able to snuff out most of the opportunities and still force tough shots.

On the other side, the Wolves focused on hunting mismatches. Specifically, they used the pick-and-fade between Mike Conley and Towns. Denver approached this with a switch-everything approach, forcing Aaron Gordon to follow Conley around the screen and leaving Murray to contend with the fading Towns, who easily shot over him for a quick three, his second of the quarter.

Offense came at a premium for both teams as they struggled to score until midway through the first quarter. Tied 1010 with 6:30 remaining in the first quarter, Jaden McDaniels picked up his second foul, and the Wolves sent him to the bench. Still, the defense remained sharp without McDaniels, allowing only 7 points over the next 4 minutes, resulting in a 17-16 ballgame with 2:30 left in the first. Jokic only had one point, two rebounds, and an assist.

Then he woke up.

Coming out of that timeout, Jokic attempted to take over the game, scoring twice in the final two minutes and inflating his stat line to 5 points, 5 rebounds, and only one assist. To their credit, the Wolves would get their offense going at times, specifically in hunting Jokic on the defensive side. Unfortunately, missed open shots would plague the Wolves throughout the first quarter. To Denver’s credit, they were closing out harder on jump shots, which could have caused trouble for the Wolves. The quarter would end at 28-20, and the Nuggets would grow a lead.

The second quarter started with the Nuggets hitting two quick threes, the latter by a white-hot Murray. McDaniels picked up his third foul at 9:49 and spent the remainder of the half on the bench. Led by Murray and a couple of timely layups from last year’s playoff hero Christian Braun, the Nuggets grew the lead to 20 at 45-25 with 6:39 remaining in the half.

Minnesot’s offense sputtered until a quick 7-point run that started with a Gobert put-back dunk off a Conley layup. Naz Reid stole an errant Jokic pass the following possession and fed Edwards for a transition layup. After Kentavious Caldwell Pope missed three, Conley hit a three to cut the lead to 45-32 with 5:14 to go in the half.

The game slowed considerably after the quick seven-point run, with seven fouls in the remaining five minutes of the half. The Nuggets carried the remainder of the quarter with impressive shot-making from Murray, who finished the half with 18 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Jokic also continued to control the game’s flow, finishing the half with seven points, nine rebounds, and six assists.

Meanwhile, Towns led the Wolves with 12 points on 4 of 4 from three. Heading into halftime, the apparent difference was Minnesota’s missed shots, stagnant offense, and foul troubles, which strapped McDaniels (aka Seatbelt) to the bench.

Below is one of Towns’ threes, a deep shot off of an Edwards feed:

The first bucket of the second half seemed to address all of those concerns. Conley fed Towns in the corner, who rifled a pass to a cutting McDaniels for an easy dunk.

The good vibes would only last so long. With 9:17 to go, McDaniels picked up a fourth foul battling for a rebound with Murray. Chris Finch decided to leave McDaniels in, but the Nuggets went on a 9-2 run with back-to-back threes from Aaron Gordon and a transition three from Michael Porter Jr., forcing the Wolves to call a timeout down 72-50.

Out of the timeout, a McDaniels dunk got the crowd back into the game, and Anthony Edwards fueled the excitement, scoring the following seven points for the Wolves, finishing with a diving layup. However, this would only cut the lead from 77-59 at the 5:01 mark. After an offensive foul on Edwards that sparked the all too familiar Refs, you suck [italics] chants to echo through the Target Center. The Wolves would show cracks in their composure as Murray would hit Jokic on a beautiful bounce pass off the pick and roll, then Jokic would hit Gordan on a back door alley-oop on back-to-back plays.

Frustration boiled over at the 1:02 mark. Naz Reid got a technical foul after a missed contested layup. The third quarter would end with the Nuggets playing spectacular offense against Minnesota’s league-best defense. Denver consistently ran the high pick and roll, setting up about five feet behind the three-point line and forcing the Wolves defenders into Jokic screens, creating space for mid-range jumpers from Murray and Reggie Jackson. When the Wolves adjusted to blitz the screen, the ball would be dropped off to Jokic who would make the decision. Ultimately, the Nuggets would take a 93-67 lead into the fourth.

The fourth quarter became a formality, and the Nuggets coasted to a 27-point win. The Wolves consistently showed their frustration with the refs and themselves after letting an opportunity to go up 3-0 pass. The only notable event after another high ball screen handoff from Jokic was that Alexander-Walker hit the deck and was in noticeable pain after taking a ding to the left shoulder earlier in the game. After medical staff checked on Alexander-Walker, he walked toward head referee Tony Brothers in a posture that could only suggest he was pleading for a call that would result in a technical foul. Kyle Anderson would come to Alexander-Walker’s support, and the refs also gave him a technical.

After the conflict, the Wolves subbed in the bench unit, and the game ended quietly. Much can be made of the oddly-refereed game with 45 combined fouls, most of the series to this point. However, the referees could have been trying to corral Minnesota’s physicality and prevent players from getting even more heated than Game 2.

However, the game’s story should be the Nuggets finding ways to poke holes in Minneosta’s defense while the offense sputtered to its worst postseason performance.

“We don’t blame the refs,” Conley said. “We put it on us.”

“We can make excuses all day,” Alexander-Walker added. “We’ve just gotta be better.”

The Nuggets came into the game knowing no team had ever returned from a 3-0 series deficit and played like their season depended on it. The Wolves will play on Sunday night, and fans should expect plenty of adjustments. The Timberwolves should also play with a heightened intensity to avoid losing home court, and the series is going back to Denver tied at 2-2. Still, the Wolves have shown resilience all season.

Edwards might have said it best while being mic’d up at the end of the game.

“It’s a series,” Edwards said. “We good.”

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