Minnesota Timberwolves crush the Denver Nuggets’ playoff chances

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images /

The Denver Nuggets squandered their hopes for the NBA Playoffs the second straight year after a devastating road loss in overtime at the hands of the Timberwolves.

It had come down to Game No. 82 just a year ago, and in that moment, the would-be MVP left no doubt as to why he was deserving of the award. Russell Westbrook dropped a 3-point basket from around 35 feet to end regulation and any hopes of the postseason for head coach Michael Malone and the Denver Nuggets.

Fast forward to the 2017-18 season, and it came down to Game No. 82 once again. Although there was no last second buzzer-beater from Westbrook or a 50-burger scored, there was Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and a Jimmy Butler.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, in front of their sold-out home crowd, ended a 13-year drought of making it to the postseason while ending the Nuggets and Malone’s season in an OT win for the ages that will be sure to leave heads scratching on both sides.

The Nuggets came in hot on a six-game winning streak, knocking off playoff teams in the Portland Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks in that span. Unfortunately, they came up short in the second go-around against Tom Thibodeau and company to close out the season.

In a game that saw the Nuggets losing early, like much of their up-and-down season, Nikola Jokic paced his team in a remarkable third quarter to keep Denver in this one. Will Barton hit clutch shots and Jamal Murray was lights- ut. Jokic, the everything big-man who is all finesse, rallied the troops in an abysmal second half by going full “Joker” in the third.

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  • Jokic played out of the body in the third, coming up possession after possession to lead all scorers with 17 points for the quarter. Continuing his aggressive play in the fourth, the Timberwolves started to bang with Jokic more. The center got tired, frustrated and swayed by the performance from Towns. Towns finished the game with some questionable fouls administered, but guided his team with 26 points on 12-of-19 shooting, 14 rebounds and excellent defense on Jokic when tasked to do so.

    For the Timberwolves, Jimmy Butler provided the spark and leadership as a hungry veteran Thibs needed for his youthful T-Wolves. Taking the last shot to try and win the game in regulation, it was more than just shot selection that Butler got right in order to propel his team into the postseason.

    Butler’s stellar defensive play combined with savvy rotational awareness and close-outs to help shut down a hot Jamal Murray and an even feistier Will Barton, who finished the game as Denver’s second-leading scorer with 24 points on 5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range. Butler’s role was hyped on draft night when Minnesota acquired him, and after seeing the disaster that was unfolding while he was out with an injury, the immediate impact was as advertised.

    For the Nuggets, it was more of the same song and dance. After Jokic hit his ninth triple-double of the season and carried his team like a JanSport backpack for much of the season, especially when Paul Milsap went down, it was the same vicious disease that ailed the Nuggets.

    In the clutch, late in the game, Jokic is quite often magnificent and unaffected by the magnitude of the moment. This was the same for the win-or-go home matchup against Minnesota, but the only thing is that late in the game, defenses adjust.

    Late in the fourth and continuing in overtime, Tom Thibodeau utilized his bruiser, Taj Gibson. Doing a majority of the “dirty work” in Chicago for Thibs, Gibson has jumped right back into the same role after teaming up with his former coach in Minnesota.

    When Denver needed a basket in the fourth to win the game and in OT to get back into it, they went to Jokic in the corner to try and create for himself or on the low block to work his magic. There was just one problem: Gibson would not falter. Time and time again, Gibson used his speed, strength and basketball IQ to outwit Jokic, eventually leading to his fatigue and ineffectiveness for the remainder of the game.

    It’s a problem that Denver is no stranger to: They tend to get lost watching Jokic work in the paint and on the perimeter, hence the number of triple-doubles he records as the focal point of the offense. Minnesota adjusted and it’s no surprise with the defensive background that Thibs possesses. The Timberwolves will go on to face the Houston Rockets in the first round and only time will tell if they can actually keep up, considering their lack of firepower compared to the Rockets.

    For Denver, it’s another offseason to build upon, but it’s also another offseason of frustration, heartache and a feeling that they beat themselves by waking up a little too late in the season.

    Moving forward, Jamal Murray will need to create more opportunities not only for himself but for his teammates. Paul Millsap can’t be nonexistent on the biggest stage (only 10 points and seven rebounds Wednesday night) and quite frankly, they need more Gary Harris, who played only 21 minutes in the biggest game of the season.

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    Coach Malone will spend another season knowing that his team was so close to getting to the “promised land” of postseason basketball. The Western Conference is liable to only get better as the talent continues to shift West and big-name players start heading to bigger media markets. For Malone and the Jazz, they should focus on the righting the ship now, while they are still in the discussion.