2023 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets (1) vs. Timberwolves (8)

Series preview: Nikola Jokic-Rudy Gobert matchup takes center stage

Breaking down the Denver-Minnesota matchup with 3 things to watch, 1 X-factor and a series prediction.

Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert have matched up on 28 occasions, including 7 clashes in the playoffs, and Gobert holds a 16-12 advantage.

A sideline scuffle in the season finale going into Minnesota’s Play-In Tournament loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday screamed dysfunction. But the Timberwolves regrouped Friday to wreak destruction on Oklahoma City in earning the eighth seed for the Western Conference playoffs, where they face the top-seeded Denver Nuggets in Game 1 on Sunday (10:30 ET, TNT).

The teams tied 2-2 in the regular-season series, with Denver drubbing the Timberwolves by 34 points in the last meeting back in early February. But the Nuggets will have had precious little prep time, going almost a full week between their regular-season finale and the emergence of their first-round opponent.

“What gives me confidence is we have the No. 3 clutch defense in the NBA,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “A lot of games in the playoffs are close games. We’ve shown we can do it. And our record against the top teams in the NBA, that’s what gives me a lot of confidence. To be 13-4 against Sacramento, Phoenix, Memphis, Golden State, the Clippers, that’s a real number.

“Being healthy also gives me confidence. When we’re fully healthy and guys are in the right place mentally, that allows us to go out there and play our game at the highest level possible. I do believe that our guys are ready for that challenge.”

We’ll see.

Regular Season Results

Jan. 2: Timberwolves 124, Nuggets 111
Jan. 18: Nuggets 122, Timberwolves 118
Feb. 5: Timberwolves 128, Nuggets 98
Feb. 7: Nuggets 146, Timberwolves 112

3 Things To Watch

1. Battle in the paint: We all understand the heliocentric nature of Denver’s offense with Nikola Jokic serving as the center of its universe. Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert should know better than most given his extensive history against the Nuggets’ center. Jokic and Gobert have matched up on 28 occasions, including seven clashes in the playoffs, and the latter has actually gotten the better of the two-time Kia MVP overall, posting a record of 16-12, but just 3-4 in the playoffs. In addition to trying to neutralize Jokic’s scoring prowess, Gobert needs to keep him off the glass, while limiting his ability as a playmaker. Jokic averages 21.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists in games against Gobert.

2. Clash of power forwards: Without Karl-Anthony Towns back in the mix, the Timberwolves likely wouldn’t stand much of a chance in this series. But he’s back healthy and presents a formidable threat for Aaron Gordon to defend. Denver finished the regular season rated 15th defensively (113.5) and it allowed 52.5 points in the paint per game (21st in the NBA), which isn’t an encouraging sign considering Towns scored 10 of his 15 first-half points in the paint during Friday’s victory over Oklahoma City in the Play-In Tournament. As we know, Towns possesses a decent stroke from deep as well (36.6%). So, the more physical Gordon faces a difficult task. Game 1 represents the first time these two have matched up in the playoffs, and Towns is 7-6 in the regular season in games against Gordon.

3.Youth vs. experience at PG: Timberwolves point guard Mike Conley has played on 67 playoff games, and he faces off against the 26-year-old Jamal Murray, who hasn’t participated in a postseason outing since 2020. That’s not to say Murray isn’t extremely dangerous. After all, the Nuggets point guard reeled off a total of 142 points over a span of three games (including two 50-point showings) in the opening round of the 2020 postseason against Utah. We haven’t seen that version of Murray since 2021, when he suffered a torn left ACL. Murray is currently nursing a thumb injury on his shooting hand and admitted after Wednesday’s practice that he’s thinking about the issue every time he catches or shoots the ball. That could help Conley in this matchup.

X Factor

Sharpshooter Michael Porter Jr. carries that designation into this series, but you could just as easily place it on Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who is expected to guard the Denver small forward. Minnesota lost its top perimeter defender in Jaden McDaniels during the regular-season finale when he punched a wall and suffered a right hand injury. Alexander-Walker stepped up in his place for the Play-In Tournament and performed solidly. He’ll have to do it again in this series against a Nuggets wing that ranks eighth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (41.6) among 101 players with at least 300 attempts. With his elite passing, Jokic will be looking to find Porter often. If Porter knocks down shots at his normal clip, the Nuggets will be in good shape.

Number To Know

70.1% — Jokic (24.5 points per game) had a *true shooting percentage of 70.1% this season, the highest mark in NBA history for a player who averaged at least 20 points in 40 games or more (1,496 total instances). The previous high was 67.5% from Stephen Curry (26.4 points per game) in 2017-18, and Kevin Durant (29.1 points per game, 67.7%) also topped that mark this season. Jokic destroyed it.

But Jokic’s 24.5 points per game were down from 27.1 last season. He looked for his shot less often and had a usage rate of 26.3%, 38th in the league and down from a career-high 30.9% in his second MVP campaign. With their center averaging a career-high 9.8 assists (with more than 100 total assists to four different teammates), the Nuggets still finished fifth in offensive efficiency and in the top seven for the seventh straight season.

The question is if the most efficient scorer in NBA history will look to be more aggressive in the postseason. Jokic has seen jumps in usage rate from the regular season to the playoffs in each of the last three years but has seen drops in true shooting percentage in each of the last two.

* True shooting percentage measures scoring efficiency. TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))

— John Schuhmann

The Pick

Malone downplayed the pressure the Nuggets are facing going into the postseason for the fifth consecutive year with nothing yet to show for It. But it’s there and the team is finally healthy and hungry to prove it’s worthy of respect as a legitimate contender. Minnesota could take a couple of games, but the Nuggets should win this series. Nuggets in 6.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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