The Wolves Haven't Found A Counterpunch For Denver

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves ended the regular season with a 56-26 record, good for third in the Western Conference. Even though they turned in the second-best season in franchise history and had homecourt advantage in the first round, they didn’t believe that guaranteed postseason success.

“It’s a series. We won two games, but we didn’t think it was going to be easy,” Anthony Edwards told the media after Minnesota’s 115-107 loss against the Denver Nuggets in Game 4. “These are the defending [champions], I said it after Game 2. They aren’t going to lie down. They are going to punch, and we are going to punch back. They beat us up tonight. The last two nights, they beat us up in the fight. But that’s okay. We’ll be alright, bounce back, and figure it out in the next game.”

The Timberwolves started the postseason 6-0, the first time that’s happened in the NBA since 2020. They swept the Phoneix Suns and went up 2-0 against the Nuggets on the road. It felt as if nothing could stop them. Not Chris Finch getting injured nor their best defender missing a game for the berth of his first child.

After their second win in Denver, the Wolves quickly became favorites to advance to the Western Conference Finals and had the second-best odds to be crowned champions. However, much to the surprise of most fans, the Nuggets came into Target Center and beat the Wolves handily in two straight games, recording a +35 point differential.

Denver became the favorite to win the series again. The Wolves were playing without their rock, Mike Conley (right Achilles soreness), in Game 5. They needed to respond with a counterpunch.

After shooting 5 of 18 from the floor in Game 4, Karl-Anthony Towns was immediately dialed in offensively on Tuesday. He was responsible for eight of Minnesota’s first 11 points as the passer and scorer. The Wolves were spacing him from the corners at a higher rate than they did in Game 4. It only led to positive results, such as a good entry pass that set up a Jaden McDaniels dunk and an early catch-and-shoot triple.

However, with 4:06 left in the first quarter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fell into Towns’ knees. He stayed on the floor for the next couple of minutes but took a seat on the bench with 2:14 left in the frame. With the amount of defensive attention Edwards receives, Minnesota needs all the offense it can get. When KAT isn’t on the floor, it allows the Nuggets to double Ant more frequently with less worrying about damage happening off the ball.

Thankfully, after just over a minute on the bench, Towns returned to the court and closed the quarter. KAT appeared much more comfortable early in Game 5 than in Game 4. He led the Wolves with seven points on 3 of 7 from the floor, already eclipsing his point total from the entire first half in Game 4, where he had 3 points on 1 of 10 from the floor.

After the first 12 minutes, Denver had a 28-26 lead. They held Edwards in check up until that point with his 4 points on 1 of 4 from the floor.

In addition to Towns’ efforts, Nickeil Alexander-Walker – who started in place of the injured Conley – went 2 of 2 from deep after going 0 of 4 from three-point range in Game 4. Even though he is technically the starting guard, NAW primarily played off the ball. Therefore, remaining a high-level threat in catch-and-shoot situations is even more important to keep the defense honest.

The Wolves needed to regain their composure in Game 5. Emotions got the better of them at home, and something needed to change. Early in the second quarter, that didn’t happen.

Between 10:38 and 8:59, Minnesota had three straight charges. Both sides played at a frenetic, breakneck speed, hurting the Wolves. Usually, Chris Finch and his staff sub Conley in when they need structure and a slower pace. However, they went with Monte Morris because Conley was unavailable. Morris canned a pull-up mid-range shot off a pick-and-roll, allowing everyone to catch their breath momentarily.

Expecting Morris to fill Conley’s void is unrealistic, though. Having a traditional point guard in the mix helped, but Minnesota’s offense still lacked direction after he subbed in.

With 3:10 left until halftime, the Nuggets had an 8-0 fastbreak points advantage. They capitalized on every Wolves mistake, regardless of who was on the floor. At that point, Edwards had five points on 1 of 7 from the floor, with two of his team’s nine turnovers. Denver was emphatically doubling Ant every time he touched the ball, especially off screen-and-rolls.

Still, the Wolves entered halftime only down 50-44. Nikola Jokić played like a three-time MVP. In his first 19 minutes, he recorded a game-high 19 points and eight assists on 7 of 10 from the floor. But aside from his gaudy numbers, the Nuggets distributed their scoring pretty evenly.

It was a successful half for Minnesota’s coaching staff.

The Wolves were within striking distance despite losing their starting point guard, who makes everything click on offense. They had propped the door open. Minnesota needed to come out of the intermission aggressively and deliver a proper gut punch to the defending champions.

Minnesota appeared much more calm early in the third. The pace slowed, and the Wolves set up a productive half-court offense.

The Timberwolves opened the third quarter on an 11-3 run, taking a two-point lead. Towns was responsible for seven of those points as a passer and scorer. With 2:14 elapsed in the third quarter, Michael Malone had already blown one of his timeouts. Towns quickly had 16 points and six assists on 7 of 13 from the floor and 2 of 4 from deep. KAT reminded everyone how efficient he was in Games 1 and 2.

Following that timeout, Denver responded with an 11-2 run, which was sparked by Alexander-Walker’s three straight misses. Heading into Game 5, the Nuggets averaged 147 points per 100 transition plays in the playoffs, ranking them 17th in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. The stat sheet says they aren’t particularly good in the open court. Still, Jokić’s passing and Denver’s ample supply of solid finishers around the rim allowed them to be productive in transition, which fueled their third-quarter run.

Denver built on that run and closed the third, outscoring the Wolves 35-19 over the final 9:46 minutes of the frame. Jokić led the charge, hanging 17 points on the board. The Wolves possessed a stifling defense through the first two games and had no answers for the Joker in the third. He was penetrating into the paint at will, drawing contact on pretty much every one of his attempts. It didn’t matter what look Minnesota threw his way; Jokić was unstoppable.

Heading into the final frame, the Nuggets led by 14 points. They were 12 minutes away from taking a commanding 3-2 lead in the series. However, the Wolves weren’t going to give up on the season’s most crucial game. With 9:30 left in the fourth, they went on a quick 6-0 run, fueled by four points from Naz Reid, leading Denver to call a timeout.

That run came with Jokić on the bench. Malone elected to sub him right back in after he played the entire third quarter and had less than a two-minute breather.

Over the next two minutes, the Wolves regressed to the immature team we saw early in the second quarter. In that span, they went 0 of 3 from the floor, turned the ball over, and made a horrible defensive miscue, leading to a wide-open triple for KCP in the corner. Denver’s lead was up to 18 with 7:10 minutes remaining in the game. That was its largest lead of the night. Any hope for a Wolves comeback quickly dwindled.

To put the game on ice, Jokić walked into a side-step triple right in the face of Gobert with 3:09 minutes left. It gave him 40 points on the night. More importantly, it put the Nuggets up 14 points and the Wolves out of reach.

Denver cruised to a 112-97 win from that point on.

“He had an MVP, best player in the world performance,” Finch told the media postgame when asked about Jokić’s performance. “We tried to do a little bit of everything on him, and he had it all going. We didn’t really have an answer for him, and honestly, we haven’t had a great [answer] the last couple of games.”

Over Games 4 and 5, Nikola combined for 75 points on 30 of 48 (62.5%) from the floor. He looked like the greatest player on the planet, particularly in Game 5. The Wolves threw every possible look in their arsenal at him, such as Towns, Gobert, or Kyle Anderson. Nothing worked. At some point, you must tip your cap to a performance like the one Jokić put together in Game 5. However, Minnesota’s offense never truly allowed it to swing the momentum in their favor, ultimately leading to their demise.

“I thought the offense started great, and then the three charges in a row were reckless, which took us out of a great rhythm and put us in foul trouble,” Finch said postgame. “I thought the easy kick-outs were there on a lot of those plays; we just needed to keep making the simple play. Our offense let us down again. They put two on the ball with Ant. We knew that was going to happen; they’ve been doing it all series… I thought, for the most part, Ant did a good job staying patient and moving the ball. Maybe we were a little late moving it out of that, which would have gotten us a couple of good looks.”

Edwards had his worst statistical game of the postseason this year. He finished with 18 points on 5 of 15 from the floor and 1 of 5 from deep. The Atlanta native tacked on nine assists, moving the ball well. However, the Wolves needed him to step up with timely buckets to combat Jokić’s unreal night, particularly after halftime. Still, Denver played stifling defense and never allowed him to settle into a groove.

The Nuggets outplayed Denver on both sides of the floor for the third straight game. They didn’t produce enough stops or respond with enough buckets. They didn’t fight back after being sucker-punched in back-to-back games at home. It’s officially do-or-die time for the Wolves as the series shifts back to Minneapolis on Thursday for Game 6.

Minnesota needs to make adjustments, and it needs to make them fast.

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