The Timberwolves-Nuggets series opener shows Minnesota is built to stop Jokić

DENVER — The silence was surreal.

One by one, just seconds after young Anthony Edwards and his mighty Minnesota Timberwolves completed their 106-99 victory over Denver in Game 1 of the West Semifinals on Saturday night, the stunned Nuggets left the Ball Arena floor with barely any sound between them. Michael Porter Jr. was the first, followed by Aaron Gordon, then Nikola Jokić, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jamal Murray. Dozens of other players and staff followed, but no words were exchanged between them.

No encouraging messages. No screams of frustration. Nothing. From the tunnel where they each celebrated a title for the first time in franchise history last June, they headed straight into the locker room where the Larry O’Brien Trophy is on display in the glass case with the white-hot spotlights.

If this is the way these Timberwolves are going to approach this grudge match, punishing Jokić with their parade of versatile big men while unleashing Edwards in the kind of fashion that consigns him to the history books, then the defending champs won’t be adding any more hardware anytime soon in the corridor. It was only one game, but this version of the T-Wolves is good enough to win the whole damn thing. And what a story that would be for Tim Connelly to tell.

When the architect of this Nuggets roster took the job as Minnesota president of basketball operations in May 2022, his first order of business was finding a way to compete against the Serbian superstar who had won his second consecutive MVP award just 12 days before Connelly became official. left Denver. Edwards’ talent was already jumping off the screen, so Connelly went to work finding ways to complement the young phenom with a dynamic rim protector who would serve as the foundation of their defense.

The 47-year-old has a habit of downplaying this storyline in media circles, insisting that his choice to give up the farm for Rudy Gobert, less than two months into his Timberwolves tenure, was more holistic and complicated than any anti-Jokić agenda then. . Fine. But everyone around Connelly is much more willing to acknowledge the obvious when it comes to this subplot, that he prioritized Gobert, Naz Reid (three-year, $42 million deal signed last summer) and Karl-Anthony Towns (by resist the urge to trade him for huge luxury tax savings) as part of a go-big-or-go-home plan that was crafted with Jokić and the Nuggets in mind.

However, it’s one thing to come up with this kind of strategy in the boardroom, and quite another to see it play out on basketball’s biggest stage like this. And while it didn’t work in their first-round playoff meeting last year, when the Timberwolves fell to Denver in five games and trailed 3-0 before finally winning a game, they’re off to a much more fascinating start this time around. all around.

As Jokić discussed afterwards, the trio of Gobert, Reid and Towns offers the kind of unique challenge that can leave him tired and exhausted. When Gobert doesn’t meet him at the rim, it’s Reid and Towns who pull him to the three-point line, where they pose a serious threat (41.6 percent and 41.4 percent, respectively, from the three-point range this season). The only real answer to this problem, Jokić joked, is to somehow find a way to add a copy of himself in time for Game 2 on Monday.

“Duplicate a clone of myself, and then I can be fresh when they come in for another guy,” said Jokić, who had 32 points, nine assists and eight rebounds but was just 11 of 25 from the field and had seven turnovers. “I don’t know. I think that’s why they’re good. They can play big. They can play small. …They’re tall, physical. They rebound really well. They’re aggressive. I’m happy with the shots I made “Some of them I missed. Some of them I made. So it’s a tough game and they’re a really good defensive team.”

It’s that last part that makes this matchup such an uphill climb for Denver. While the Timberwolves’ No. 1 defense is the most proven aspect of their identity, the Nuggets ranked eighth on the other side of the rankings. The difference, for Denver and the rest of the league, is that Minnesota has a generational defenseman in Gobert who has finally proven himself to be worth every penny (and draft pick) of that controversial deal with Utah.

Gobert finished with six points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and a plus-12 rating that trailed only Mike Conley (plus-20), but it was his late fourth-quarter block of a Jokić alley-oop attempt that stands out as the best memory shaped its value. Fresh off a putback that gave Minnesota a five-point lead with 3:16 to go, Gobert manned the paint as Jokić took a pass from Murray at the free-throw line and immediately deflected it to a surging Gordon.

On most nights, the high-flying Gordon finishes the play, causing an electric reaction among the Nuggets faithful. Only this time, Gobert timed his jump perfectly and knocked Jokić’s lob away with his left hand, creating a break the other way for Edwards.

The Timberwolves guard was fouled while attacking the rim, hit the next two free throws for a seven-point lead and then saw it swell to nine points when Gobert buried a mid-range shot on the next possession. However, despite all the fireworks that unfolded during that stretch, it was Jokić’s inability to complete a crucial final play that stood out the most. And Gobert, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year who may be on the verge of his fourth such honor, was well aware of the deeper meaning of it all.

“I mean, for me he’s the best player in the world,” Gobert said The Athletics about Jokić, who was taken 41st overall by Connelly in the 2014 draft during his nine-year stint leading the Nuggets’ front office. “He’s going to be a three-time MVP soon for a reason, but I think my abilities are unique in the way I can impact the game of basketball. So I’m very grateful to Tim Connelly and all these guys for believing in me and putting me in this situation to help this team become a championship team and be a top defense. That’s who I try to be every day.

“This is what I live for. This is what I always dream about. I live for these moments. I work for these moments every day, so now I just try to enjoy them.”

Make no mistake, the series opener was mostly about Edwards. His first six minutes were spectacular as he scored 11 of his 43 points during Minnesota’s 18-4 start while chasing the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray (17 points; a minus-22 rating) while struggling to play through the calf injury that seeing clearly is still a problem. Edwards’ final quarter (12 points; 4-of-5 shooting) was almost as good — none more so than the Michael Jordan-esque spinning fadeaway he buried over Caldwell-Pope to put the Timberwolves up 11.

“I mean, I lost to these guys last year, and they’re the defending champs,” Edwards said. “They’re a tough team to beat, a great team (with) great players. They have the best player in the league with Nikola Jokić. For me, they have the best closer in Jamal Murray, the best three-point shooter in Michael Porter Jr. So it’s hard to beat this team.

“It’s not just my mentality, it’s the team mentality. We come in and you know it’s going to be war. We just play within the game and just stay within the game. They make runs. We have to run. It’s a fight. It’s going to be a fight.”

But even putting aside the shared history with the Nuggets, these Timberwolves have been as impressive as any team left in this postseason thus far. They handled the Phoenix Suns in their first round match, with Edwards defeating the likes of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. And with Connelly’s plan to slow Jokić showing so much promise in the early series, it’s up to the Nuggets to decide if they’re going to make any noise.

Required reading

Jones: Nuggets tested by Timberwolves in sobering Game 1 loss at home
Thompson: Go ahead, say it: Anthony Edwards looks a lot like Michael Jordan right now

(Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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