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

Nuggets-Timberwolves: 5 takeaways from Denver's Game 3 answer

Jamal Murray heats up, the Nuggets' shooters follow suit and Minnesota comes back to earth in Denver's Game 3 rout.

Jamal Murray rediscovered his groove, as did the Nuggets in Game 3.

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MINNEAPOLIS — You could see this kind of night coming from here to, well, Denver.

With their season and 2023 championship defense essentially on the line, the Nuggets responded in this surprisingly one-sided Western Conference semifinal Game 3 with force and conviction. Whether or not the series will take a drastic turn will be determined Sunday (8 ET, TNT).

But there’s at least a sense of suspense after the Nuggets won Game 3 breezily and showed plenty of flex and, well, desperate unwillingness to fall three games down. It was a blowout from the jump, with the Nuggets keeping a double-digit lead for much of the game and winning by 27 points.

There was plenty of Jamal Murray and shot-making from the Nuggets and lots of shoddy stretches at both rims by the Wolves. As a result, Minnesota lost for the first time in seven games in these playoffs as their lead in this series was cut in half by a dominant and determined Denver response.

It was the largest Game 3 margin of victory by a team that dropped the first two games at home in postseason history, and especially impressive coming off a 26-point Game 2 loss.

Here are five takeaways from the Nuggets’ 117-90 win, and a series that’s now 2-1 Minnesota:

1. Murray in a hurry to respond

The Target Center fans booed Murray right from the introductions, mainly because he was actually in the introductions.

More than a few were unhappy that Murray was allowed to play at all; he dodged a suspension (but not a fine) from the league office for throwing items on the floor in Game 2.

Without Murray, the Nuggets don’t win this game. That’s because this was the best result from Murray throughout these playoffs. Until Friday, he was mostly reckless and inefficient — even in the Laker series when he hit big game-deciding jumpers.

Murray was obviously on a mission to change all that in Game 3. Lucky for him, the three off-days after Game 2 helped his sore calf.

Consequently, Murray was frisky from the first quarter, zipping between double-teams, stepping back for jumpers, getting 18 of his 24 points by halftime, and taking control of the game.

Murray now has only one off-day before Game 4, so the calf muscle could once again be an issue.

“This is probably the best it’s felt going into a game,” he said, “But it tightened up a bit at the end.”

Three days off did wonders for Jamal Murray, who scores 24 points on 11-for-21 shooting in Denver's 117-90 victory.

2. Minnesota makes a return to earth

Really, these playoffs represented the best the Wolves could offer. Their defense was historic, Anthony Edwards volcanic, and their depth simply wore down the Suns in the first round and, through the first two games of this semifinal, the Nuggets.

But this was a not-so-welcome-back to normalcy for a team that, while certainly solid and a contender, came with flaws. And those issues haunted the Wolves in Game 3, mainly on the offensive end.

Minnesota couldn’t shoot straight from deep, failed to match the Nuggets’ sense of urgency and never generated any traction to battle back from its first real deficit in the playoffs. Furthermore, the sellout crowd was never a factor, and fans began beating traffic home halfway through the fourth quarter.

“I haven’t seen a team win 16 straight in the playoffs,” said Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns. But, he added, “We just have to be a better version of ourselves. We weren’t tonight.”

Other than Towns, the Wolves shot 5-for-28 on 3s, scored just 41 points in the first half and allowed the Nuggets to roam free offensively — a near-reversal from Minnesota’s decisive Game 2 win.

“Our decision-making wasn’t there, general movement wasn’t there,” said Wolves coach Chris Finch. “Not a lot of good things on either end of the floor.”

3. Nuggets crack Wolves’ code with deep shooting

A game ago the Nuggets were completely flummoxed by the Wolves’ pressing and trapping. It stripped away everything Denver does well — especially shooting.

That changed abruptly on Friday. The Nuggets’ aim was true all night; they made nearly half of their 3-point shots and connected on 54% overall for the game, especially impressive given the quality of defense usually played by the Wolves.

The beauty of the Nuggets is their calm and deliberate pace, fostered by a sense of familiarity and ability to find the open man. This is a product of an organically grown team — an offense that works like a Swiss timepiece — run by Nikola Jokic, perhaps the finest passing big man in history.

None of this was evident last Monday when the Nuggets unraveled, shot 35% overall and 30% from deep while looking nothing like the team that raised the trophy a year ago.

But that was then. One game can change the flow of a series, and in that sense, the Nuggets aren’t taking too much from Game 3.

“We’re far from doing anything to celebrate,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

4. McDaniels’ fouls were a factor

It was a subtle development involving a player who seems to work in the shadows, and it helped the game get away from the Wolves.

When swingman Jaden McDaniels developed early foul trouble, the Wolves were stripped of arguably their most important defender. That’s how much McDaniels’ value has grown, not only in this series, but all season, actually.

McDaniels is tasked with being a speed bump for Murray, and through two games he did that job well — Murray never drew blood from the Wolves. Then came Friday. Murray brought the energy, and so did McDaniels, though maybe too much.

His fouls limited McDaniels to only seven first-half minutes, and by then, the Nuggets and Murray were in control, up 15 points and cruising.

5. Nuggets regain swagger

This 48-minute performance by the Nuggets looked familiar. As in, it looked like last year’s team that had few hiccups on the way to a championship.

That team hadn’t appeared in the 2024 playoffs, until now. Even though the Nuggets needed just five games to get past the Lakers in the first round, they trailed at halftime of each game, then scrambled to win all four.

The first two games in this series were forgettable, especially Game 2, when their body language was foul in a 26-point loss.

The Nuggets were consistent in this respect: they remained tough on the road. They’re now 8-4, stretching back to last postseason.

So they reached back for a 2023 throwback and it agreed with them Friday. The ball moved, Jokic went for 24-14-9, Murray bounced off screens and defenders and the Nuggets kept the Wolves on a treadmill.

“That was Denver Nuggets basketball,” Malone said.

Malone cited his team’s rally from a pair of 3-1 deficits in the bubble as proof of its mental toughness, and also spliced together chatter of Denver doom over the last three days by TV talk shows as motivation.

“Our guys answered the bell,” Malone said. “They still believe.”

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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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