Timberwolves

The Wolves Must Stick To Their Defensive Gameplan Against Denver

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves had the league’s No. 1 defense for the entire season. They put their defensive prowess on full display against the Phoenix Suns and their star talent, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. With a second-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets looming, the Wolves will have to stay gameplan disciplined throughout what should be a much tougher series.

When previewing the Wolves-Nuggets matchup, the national media may expect the Timberwolves to guard Nikola Jokic with Rudy Gobert, the soon-to-be three-time defensive player of the year. That’s unlikely to be the case, though. In the regular season, Minnesota used Gobert as a roamer, like a safety in football, while putting Karl-Anthony Towns or another big on the Joker.

When these teams matched up in the first round last year, we saw glimpses of this strategy working for the Wolves. After they won the championship, former Nuggets guard Bruce Brown said that the Wolves were their toughest challenge in their championship run. The Timberwolves weren’t fully healthy last year and should be better positioned to challenge Denver in the upcoming series. The injuries to Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels affected their depth, and the team never found their rhythm going into last year’s series. Towns also missed 56 games, and the Wolves acquired  Mike Conley at the trade deadline to replace D’Angelo Russell.

At full strength, Minnesota’s length and athleticism often disrupt a team’s rhythm, and it has many options to throw at their opponents. Their perimeter defense features McDaniels, Anthony Edwards, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and they have Gobert, Towns, Reid, and Kyle Anderson to guard the paint.

The Timberwolves hired Tim Connelly away from Denver in 2022, and it looks like he’s built Minnesota’s roster to beat the Nuggets. Connelly’s initial desire for the Wolves this season was to win a playoff series. Now that the Wolves have done that, his team must take down the defending NBA champions.

Besides Jokic’s brilliance, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has often been a difference-maker in their playoff runs. In their first-round series win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray averaged 24 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds per game. He even stamped two wins for Denver in the series with his game-winners in Games 2 and 5, respectively.

In round 1, Minnesota held Devin Booker and Bradley Beal in check as their field goal percentage suffered, and they looked disturbed throughout many offensive possessions. Although Jamal Murray, a player with 0 All-Star games under his belt, is considered inferior to the two Phoenix guards, his career playoff numbers have been spectacular, and he’s shown the ability to hurt the Wolves in a playoff setting. Although McDaniels missed last year’s series, the Wolves still had Edwards and Alexander-Walker available to throw at Murray.

The difference is that the Lakers don’t have the personnel to affect Murray like the Wolves do. In the regular season, Murray didn’t perform his best in three games against the Wolves, but he steps up in the biggest moments. Nevertheless, it’ll still be a challenge for Minnesota, given what Murray did to them in their last playoff series.

There’s a commercial during the playoffs where players dismiss the notion that there is a playoff version of themselves, “It’s not a thing,” they say. For Murray, it has been a thing for a long time, and everyone watching should be aware of it by now. Based on name value, it might seem like an easier task for the Wolves to guard in this series. But the Nuggets have a championship DNA that’s nonexistent in Phoenix. Given the history of this matchup, Minnesota and Denver should be ready for what’s to come.

The Wolves and Nuggets split the regular-season series 2-2. The last two matchups had playoff implications in the fight for the No. 1 seed in the West, but both teams were dealing with injuries. While regular-season games can fail to be a good indicator of how competitive a playoff series will be, that hasn’t necessarily been the case with these two teams.

Minnesota also split the season series with the Nuggets 2-2 last year but lost the playoff series 4-1. However, Denver saw the Wolves as their toughest challenge. Why? It’s because these teams know each other well. The Timberwolves know how to disrupt Denver’s actions and make their stars uncomfortable. Similarly, Denver knows how to combat Minnesota’s physicality. There is no stopping Jokic, but he has shown his discomfort with Minnesota’s pressure.

If the Wolves want a chance in this series, it starts with the defensive looks they give the 29-year-old Serbian. After Minnesota’s closeout game against the Suns, Edwards told Towns to stop f—ing fouling in their postgame presser. It was blunt, but it was the truth. That’s why Edwards has earned such high praise during this playoff run. He has taken on a leadership role for one of the best teams in the league at age 22.

Towns and Minnesota’s big men must stay out of foul trouble in this series. While their occasional lack of availability didn’t cost them in Round 1, it almost certainly will in Round 2 with Jokic and Aaron Gordon. The Wolves will not want to have Gobert guarding Jokic, and the fewer the bodies, the more likely they will be forced into making that decision. As good as Gobert is at protecting the paint, Jokic has shown his dominance against the Frenchman in the past.

Round 2 will be a tough matchup for the Wolves, but they’ll have plenty of time to prepare like they did before. Chris Finch’s status after his surgery is still to be determined. Still, the coaching staff will have their guys ready for what should be the most intriguing second-round matchup.

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