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

Nuggets-Timberwolves: 5 takeaways from Minnesota's historic comeback vs. reigning champs

After trailing big, Minnesota locks down and executes a 20-point Game 7 comeback to topple defending-champion Denver.

The Timberwolves pull off the largest 2nd-half comeback in Game 7 history to oust the Nuggets.

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• Game detail: MIN 98, DEN 90

DENVER — In a seventh game, only one team goes to seventh heaven.

And in a game that made little sense — an appropriate finish to a Western Conference semifinal that made no sense — the Timberwolves lived to tell. Meanwhile, the defense of a championship died.

The Nuggets grabbed a 20-point lead. Jamal Murray couldn’t seem to miss. Anthony Edwards couldn’t seem to make. The first half was lopsided. The third quarter was interesting.

The fourth quarter was tense … so tense that even Wolves coach Chris Finch, who can’t get around on his surgically repaired knee without crutches, couldn’t sit down.

That’s primarily because the Wolves seized control in the final seven minutes. Edwards found his rhythm. Jaden McDaniels hit open shots. Karl-Anthony Towns played defense. Rudy Gobert — Gobert! — sank a fadeaway 13-footer. And Naz Reid … his block and then dunk off a follow was the winning snapshot.

Right before the buzzer sounded, Murray missed a meaningless shot. That’s how the Nuggets went home: defeated, dazed and in disbelief over what exactly happened.

The Wolves won in Denver for the third time in this series, and the last one — given the atmosphere, the stakes and the situation — was the most improbable.

“I want these guys to understand what they just did,” said Wolves guard Mike Conley. “Making the conference finals is hard.”

Here are five takeaways to remember from the Wolves’ 98-90 victory in Game 7:

1. There’s no ‘D’ in Timberwolves

But there’s an ‘S’ — for stops. That’s what the Wolves did to win this series. They leaned on their strength and, with just a few exceptions, their strength didn’t betray them.

“For 82 games they were the No. 1-rated defense for a reason,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “We did not make enough shots in this series.”

Minnesota’s height, with Gobert and Towns, was key against Nikola Jokic. The three-time Kia MVP impacted this series — no one can shut him down — but he enjoyed only one game that could be described as total domination.

Murray scored 35 points in Game 7, easily his best of a series during which he struggled the other six games. Only six points came in the fourth quarter, though. The Wolves kept everyone else in check as Jokic and Murray were the only Nuggets in double figures.

The Wolves held the Nuggets to 90 or fewer points in three of their four wins. In Game 7, Denver scored just 37 second-half points.

“We said this all series long — our best is better than their best,” said Finch.

Gobert and Towns on Jokic, Edwards and McDaniels on Murray, McDaniels on Michael Porter Jr. … it all worked to Minnesota’s advantage.

2. Edwards recovers, rebounds

In the first half of Game 7, he suffered through his most miserable stretch of the postseason. Shots were missed and his presence was mild. In the biggest game of his 22-year-old life, Edwards was fading from the stage.

But great players find a way, and Edwards is grooming himself for greatness. He hit an isolation 3-pointer to end the third quarter, which fueled the Wolves and, particularly, himself. He added another key 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to put Minnesota up 10.

Again: The Wolves won a Game 7, on the road, with their best player shooting 6-for-24. There’s no logic for that.

It was impressive how the Wolves picked up Edwards. The Nuggets doubled him all game, but that strategy eventually backfired when McDaniels made them pay for their disrespect. He finished with 23 points, feasting on open jumpers, forcing Denver to adjust.

It was a positive Minnesota outcome, for a change, that didn’t depend heavily on Edwards making shots.

“We don’t have a Big 3,” said Towns. “We have a Big 15.”

Anthony Edwards explains how the Timberwolves were able to ovecome a 15-point halftime deficit and dethrone the champs.

3. Nuggets had no help for the big two

Jokic and Murray. That’s it. That’s all the Nuggets could muster in a Game 7. Against this defense, that wasn’t nearly enough.

They combined for 69 of 90 points while Porter once again was a ghost, unable to hit 3s or put the Wolves on their heels. He shot 3-for-12, missed five of his six from deep and was a non-factor until the end.

Aaron Gordon, so effective for much of this series, finally laid an egg. The Wolves kept him from crashing the rim for lob passes and he attempted only five shots.

And the Nuggets’ bench, a sore spot all season, delivered five points. Ultimately, the key losses from last season would haunt this unit, and it did when it mattered most.

“So much was placed on their backs,” Malone said of Jokic and Murray, who added the two had to “pull rabbits out of their hats.”

But some of this was due to the Wolves. They made it tough for Jokic and Murray and next to impossible for everyone else. That defense was that good, is that good.

“We applied the pressure, they got tired and all the guys did the little things that help you win,” Conley said.

4. Gobert had the game’s most memorable shot

He sized up Jokic, turned around and swished a 13-foot fadeaway with 7:43 left, a crucial moment of a tight game.

First: Why was he even in position to shoot? Well, the shot clock was ticking, and he had the ball. No time to pass. And it came after a timeout, with the Wolves searching for answers after their lead fell to two points.

Second: You mean he made it? For a player who rarely shoots beyond the paint, yes, he did.

“You surprised?” Gobert asked afterward.

You bet.

“Lucky,” assessed Conley.

“It made up for his missed dunk,” joked Finch.

Conley added: “Actually, I was excited. It was an amazing, big-time shot. Happened during a big moment in the game, after some of our guys got in foul trouble, things were starting to get tough. For him to make that was a little bit of a momentum shift for us.”

It was also a momentum shift for Gobert, who struggled at both ends in the first half. But there was no bigger player defensively in the fourth quarter than Gobert, pivotal at the rim while guarding Gordon (four points for the game) and helping on Jokic.

But that shot …

“When Rudy hit the turnaround, I was like, yeah, we probably got ‘em,” said Edwards.

5. Repeating is tough, getting back will be tougher

As Malone spoke in the interview room at Ball Arena, the Wolves’ locker room in the very next room was loud — laughing, chanting and very audible. It was a weird scene, certainly an uncomfortable one for the Nuggets’ coach.

“This feeling sucks,” he said.

Well, that “feeling” could become trendy in the NBA. With the restrictions in place for the salary cap and penalties for tax repeaters, the challenge to retool champions is steep and tricky. The league will have a new champion for the sixth straight season.

The Nuggets lost a good portion of their bench from last season and never found capable replacements, especially for Bruce Brown. Except for Christian Braun, their young players rarely got off the bench in the playoffs. They weren’t ready.

“We competed, we fought, we came up short,” Malone said. “No one ever said it was going to be easy to repeat.”

The Nuggets are a second apron team next season, meaning their wiggle room for roster moves is minimal and the punishment massive. Their biggest decision rests with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can opt out of his contract.

So the offseason begins, sooner than they wanted.

“Failure is not fatal,” Malone said. “This was a momentary delay … we’ll be back.”

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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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