2024 Playoffs: West Semifinals | Nuggets (2) vs. Timberwolves (3)

Nuggets-Timberwolves: 5 takeaways from Minnesota's defensive masterclass in Game 2

Even without Rudy Gobert in the mix, the Timberwolves hold the Nuggets to 80 points and forge a 2-0 series lead.

The Timberwolves have stifled the Nuggets throughout the first two games of their West semifinal, and 1-on-1 defense is the key.

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DENVER — It might not be a stretch to suggest this is the high-water mark in the history of the Timberwolves’ franchise.

Sure, the Wolves went to the conference finals with Kevin Garnett some 20 years ago. But this? This hits differently.

They swept the Suns in the first round. Now they’ve taken two from the defending champion Nuggets in Denver. And they’re headed home with a lead in the Western Conference semifinals that feels insurmountable.

It’s just 2-0. But everything about this series screams — make that howls — in favor of the Wolves. They’re in complete control. They have the best player, they own home-court advantage, and goodness, their defense. You see that?

Here are five takeaways from the Wolves’ 106-80 beatdown in Game 2.

1. Wolves have the No. 1 defense for a reason

That was a masterclass on D they gave Monday. Their rotations, aggression, hustle and quick hands were superb, perhaps far above anything seen in the NBA this postseason.

It’s been our identity all year,” said coach Chris Finch.

If this continues, Minnesota’s defense could be historic and among the best in recent NBA memory. The way the Wolves execute, it conjures up memories of the Chicago Bulls’ championship-era teams with Michael Jordan, Ron Harper, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman smothering opponents.

By the way, the Wolves were without Rudy Gobert, the heavy favorite to be named Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday (more on him below).

“We got some really good defensive efforts on the ball, off the ball, physicality, execution of the gameplan, doing it over and over again,” said Finch. “The physical and mental toughness was great. We really went after it on defense.”

The Nuggets were held to 35 points in the first half, 15 in the second quarter, and a season-low 80 for the game. Denver’s passing lanes were clipped and their go-to players were silenced. Even when the lead was in the 20s, the Wolves refused to show mercy.

“We played in late-clock situations all night long,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “We didn’t meet their level of physicality.”

2. Nuggets are unraveling

The altitude in this city is famously 5,280 feet and today, that’s how much of a mountain the defending champions must climb to reclaim this series.

If that’s possible.

The Nuggets look flustered in a way we’ve never seen since the start of last postseason — reeling, frustrated, confused, annoyed. You must understand, they’ve never been backhanded in the face like this. They only lost once at home in the 2023 playoffs and just dropped two straight playoff games.

They’re getting dominated and, truthfully, humiliated. The Wolves led by 26 at halftime … and it really wasn’t that close. It’s possible that Denver just doesn’t match up against this big and quick team anchored by Anthony Edwards.

“After that first quarter there was basically only one team on the floor,” said Nikola Jokic.

Jokic seems powerless against Minnesota’s size and clever wings who collapse on him whenever he dribbles. Jokic is averaging 5.5 turnovers per game in this series. Michael Porter Jr., who sparkled in the first round, isn’t seeing as many open looks.

Guard Jamal Murray, weakened by a sore calf, is in a fog and is being hounded by Jaden McDaniels, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and others. He shot 1-for-10 in the first half (he was scoreless in the first half in Game 1). Minnesota’s game plan is flawless, matched by its execution, and the Nuggets are clueless.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Malone. “The body language of our guys is not where it needs to be. We just got beat up in our building. We got embarrassed in front of our fans.”

3. Murray ready to ‘pack’ it in?

There was a moment in the first half when play had to be stopped and the floor swept clean. The public address announcer reminded fans, who were frustrated with the officiating, to “refrain from throwing objects or exhibiting disruptive behavior, or you will be subject to ejection and possible arrest.”

It wasn’t the fans that were guilty in this instance, though.

Punishment might be forthcoming when the league investigates Murray (meaning, looks at the replays) for tossing a heating pack from the end of the bench on to the court in the second quarter while play was ongoing. It was “inexcusable,” Finch said after the game, because of the potential for injury.

Murray, who was also seen rubbing his fingers in an apparent “paid off” sign directed at a referee, left the building without comment.

Malone said he had no idea Murray tossed the heat pack, saying, “I knew a heating pack was on the floor, but it was not in my field of vision.”

Nor did the officials see him throw it, added crew chief Marc Davis.

“We weren’t aware it had come from the bench. If we would have been aware it came from the bench, we could have reviewed it under the hostile act trigger. The penalty would have been a technical foul,” Davis told a pool reporter after Game 2.

4. Gobert chose fatherhood

And that’s understandable; seeing your first child (in Gobert’s case, a son) enter the world always takes precedence. This happened Monday morning in Minneapolis.

“We’re happy for Rudy,” said Finch.

Once the logistics of flying back to Denver were complicated by weather, Gobert stayed behind. It was certainly cause for concern, for obvious reasons. Without Gobert around to help guard Jokic, it was seemingly advantage, Denver.

But the way the Wolves smothered the Nuggets all night, Minnesota didn’t need him. And anyway, Gobert was in Denver in spirit.

“Rudy started a defensive culture,” Finch said. “It’s a testament to what he infused defensively in this team, how great we can be when we play it.”

5. Towns to the rescue

This was Karl-Anthony Towns’ team until the Wolves drafted Edwards and he developed quickly. Suddenly, one of the best big-man shooters in NBA history was a second option.

Towns seems OK with that, willing to pick his spots when to step into the lead singer role. That time was the first half Monday. He was forceful from the start, putting pressure on Jokic with 20 points in the first half on 8-for-11 shooting as Minnesota led 61-35.

This time, Towns set the tone and Edwards followed his lead as both scored 27 points. It was a 1-2 punch that Minnesota would be wise to duplicate the rest of this series.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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