Nuggets tested by Timberwolves in sobering Game 1 loss at home

DENVER — The most impressive part about the run to last year’s NBA championship is how little the Denver Nuggets allowed themselves to be tested.

They never trailed in a series. They were tied twice, once in the second round against the Phoenix Suns and once in the finals when they lost Game 2 to the Miami Heat. In both instances, the Nuggets were the better team, and not many truly thought they were in danger of losing the series. In 20 playoff games, Denver went 16-4 to win a championship. The Nuggets of last year were a true juggernaut.

Defending that title is certainly within reach and certainly the expectation for Denver. That being said, Saturday night’s 106-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at Ball Arena was sobering. Losing Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinal is hardly a death knell. And for a Nuggets team that prides itself on resiliency, they look at this as a series just beginning.

What’s clear, however, is that the Timberwolves are going to be the most difficult team the Nuggets have faced in two seasons — by a lot. The Nuggets haven’t faced a team with this kind of depth. With apologies to LeBron James and Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, they haven’t seen an individual player as good as the current version of Anthony Edwards.

Jamal Murray hasn’t seen the kind of perimeter defense the Timberwolves threw at him in Game 1. Nikola Jokic is the best player in the world, and he hasn’t seen the steady rotation of three big men who are all uniquely qualified to guard him that he did in Game 1.

“I can have a duplicate clone of myself,” Jokic said when The Athletic asked him what adjustments he could make against Minnesota’s steady rotation of bigs. “That way, when one of them check into the game, I can have a fresh version of myself.”

Jokic was being tongue-in-cheek, and it elicited a hearty laugh from all in attendance. But in this case, the comedy wasn’t that far from the truth. Jokic scored 32 points, a team-high, in 41 minutes of Game 1. But, he went 11-of-25 from the field, which is uncharacteristic for him. He went 2-for-9 from 3-point range, a number which suggests he settled for a lot of jumpers instead of getting into the paint. He turned the ball over seven times, something he rarely does.

What we haven’t seen in the recent Denver run is a team that can match them physically. In every series, the Nuggets have had a significant physical advantage to exploit, and that physical advantage may not be there in this series. It’s compelling because the Nuggets are going to have to find other ways of figuring out the Timberwolves. And if we are keeping things honest, the makings of this became apparent last year when Denver beat Minnesota 4-1 in the first round.

By the end of that series, the Timberwolves looked like a team that knew they could compete with the Nuggets. But by the time they figured it out, it was too late to win or even get back into the series. And without Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, who both missed that series with injuries, Minnesota wasn’t deep or collectively talented enough to make the Nuggets sweat.

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Anthony Edwards soars to the basket en route to scoring 43 points in Minnesota’s Game 1 win over Denver. (Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

But last year Edwards figured out the Nuggets had issues guarding him, and he’s carried that confidence over to this year if his 43-point performance is any indication. On paper, this makes Minnesota by far Denver’s most formidable matchup since 2022, when they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round. The Warriors would go on to win a title. What it means is that the Nuggets will face pressure on Monday to perform and pressure in Games 3 and 4 to take one in Minneapolis.

“We have to make sure that we’re never too high and never too low,” Denver forward Christian Braun said. “We are the defending champions, so we have to go out and act like it. It’s one game of what we hope will be a long series. We just have to come out and play well on Monday and play well for the remainder of the series.”

What the Nuggets hope to control in Game 2 on Monday night is the way they defend. Frankly, they were awful in the second half of Game 1. They had a 150 defensive rating (surrendering 150 points per 100 possessions) in the second half Saturday. They couldn’t keep Edwards out of the lane. Beyond Edwards, they allowed Reid and Mike Conley to make significant contributions offensively in the second half. So even with Edwards’ output, there was balance to Minnesota offensively that Denver couldn’t live with.

Denver knows Edwards is something it will have to live with. Maybe the Nuggets can turn him over a bit more, and make things tougher on him. But Edwards at this point is impossible to stop. What may tilt the series in Denver’s favor is how the Nuggets deal with the other Timberwolves.

“Minnesota shot 71 percent from the field in the second half,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “71 percent in an NBA playoff game is unacceptable. In the second half, I thought there wasn’t nearly enough discipline and physicality and I thought that they were able to get whatever they wanted offensively. Reid got going. Karl-Anthony Towns got going. Mike Conley got going. And Edwards carried the day in the first half. I don’t think we had what we needed to have tonight. And I’ll leave it at that.”

The most concerning thing going forward in this series for Denver is Murray’s left calf. The injury, a strain, originally occurred in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, Murray was heroic in Game 5, ending the series with a game-winner in the paint. Murray shot 6-of-14 from the field on Saturday night and scored 17 points. He was held scoreless in the first half — the first scoreless half of his playoff career. It’s also the first time he has shot 50 percent from the field in six postseason games this year.

In Saturday’s Game 1, Murray was compromised. He didn’t have his usual burst vertically. He didn’t have his usual explosion off the dribble. He didn’t practice this week to try and get healthy, but he’s not healthy. More importantly, he was vulnerable defensively, and that’s more important than his lack of shooting. The Timberwolves put him in every pick-and-roll action defensively in the second half, and that serves as a reason they generated such good looks offensively. Murray was beaten off the dribble multiple times by Conley, who, at 36 years old, doesn’t get by people off the bounce like he once did in his prime.

Denver’s not winning this series without a close-to-prime version of Murray. It makes winning Monday’s Game 2 even more important since there will be a three-day break when the series shifts to Minnesota for Game 3.

(Top photo of Nikola Jokic driving against Karl-Anthony Towns: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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