Preview: Denver Nuggets continue road trip against Timberwolves

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The final week of the 2020-21 regular season began on a high note for the Denver Nuggets, who snapped a two-game losing streak to defeat the Charlotte Hornets, 117-112.

Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokić each scored 30 points, while Denver received a boost off the bench from the returning Monte Morris. The win secured home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, thus allowing head coach Michael Malone to manage minutes and playing time in the final three games this week.

MORE: Takeaways from win over Hornets

Denver (45-24) continues its road trip Thursday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have vastly improved over the last month.

Minnesota (22-47) is 6-4 in its last 10 games and has showcased a potential foundation for success in the coming years with a core led by Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards.

The Timberwolves own the fifth-ranked net rating over the past two weeks (+7.8 points per 100 possessions), with their offense operating at a high level now that they have most of their top players available.

Denver won the first two meetings of the season series back in January and has won 10 consecutive games against Minnesota dating back to the 2017-18 season.

Projected starters: Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

MONTE MORRIS – RETURN FROM INJURY MANAGEMENT. QUESTIONABLE.

JAMAL MURRAY – LEFT ACL SURGERY. OUT

WILL BARTON III – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. OUT.

P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

TUNE-IN: 6 p.m. MT, Altitude 2 and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Karl-Anthony Towns

It wasn’t too long ago that Towns and Jokić were battling for the “best young big man” spot in the NBA. After all, Towns enjoyed success earlier in his career, with a significant role right away as the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and his team making the playoffs in his third season.

However, injuries and Minnesota’s struggles as a team have hurt Towns in recent seasons, although he continues to put up big numbers. The 25-year-old has averaged 24.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game this season, all while being perhaps the deadliest 3-point shooting big man in league history. Towns has connected on 39.1 percent of his 6.4 3-point attempts per game this season, all while shooting over 40 percent in each of the past three seasons from beyond the arc.

Meanwhile, Jokić is putting the finishing touches on his MVP campaign with a late scoring surge in recent weeks. After scoring 30+ points in three of his last five games, the Serbian big man is averaging 27.6 points per game on 55.6 percent shooting from the field in his last 10 contests. It’s always an intriguing battle between these two big men, and Thursday’s matchup should be no different.

Attack the offensive glass

It’s no secret that Minnesota has struggled defensively this season. On the season, the Timberwolves rank 28th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. Although Minnesota has excelled at forcing turnovers (ranking sixth in opponent turnover percentage), teams have been able to take advantage in other areas, including on the offensive glass.

The Timberwolves rank 26th in opponent offensive rebound percentage, allowing teams to grab a rebound on 26.9 percent of their missed shots. That should be music to Denver’s ears, who rank second in offensive rebound percentage this season at 28.4 percent.

The Nuggets finished with a 13-9 advantage on the offensive glass in the first meeting this season, while the two teams tied with 10 offensive rebounds in the second meeting. If Denver can create a significant advantage on the boards Thursday, it will go a long way in securing a season-series sweep over Minnesota.

The battle inside the paint

Scoring in the paint has played a key role for both teams this season, albeit in vastly different ways.

Minnesota’s offense is focused on shot attempts coming at the rim or from beyond the arc. The Timberwolves rank fourth in the frequency of shot attempts coming with four feet of the rim, although finishing those attempts has been a struggle. Minnesota ranks 24th in the league in field-goal percentage on such shots at 61.2 percent.

On the other hand, Denver has been an elite finishing team around the rim (67.7 percent, tied for fourth in the league), but hasn’t generated a significant number of attempts from that area of the floor (31 percent of total shot attempts, the 23rd-ranked frequency in the league).

Defensively, Denver has done a good job in limiting shot attempts around the rim, but teams have finished at an elite rate when they get to the basket (68.2 percent). Conversely, Minnesota has given up a lot of shot attempts at the rim this season, but teams have only shot 63.6 percent on those attempts, a below-average percentage.

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