The Denver Nuggets are exactly where they thought they’d be heading into the playoffs
From 2019 to 2021, the Nuggets led by Nikola Jokic have finished in the top three of the West every season. Last year, they finished sixth despite Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. sitting out for most of the season. That’s why it’s no surprise that welcoming back Murray and Porter Jr., combined with the MVP-level play of Jokic, has catapulted the Nuggets to the top of the West.
The Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t where they thought they’d be heading into the playoffs.
When Minny pulled the trigger to acquire Rudy Gobert in the offseason, they envisioned having two seven-footers that could dominate the rest of the league. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out because Karl-Anthony Towns sat out for most of the season. The Timberwolves struggled to adjust to that huge loss early, but did enough in the end of the season to make the playoffs.
Most compelling storyline
If there’s one weakness that the Nuggets have that the Timberwolves could exploit, it’s their interior defense.
The Nuggets aren’t the best team in protecting the paint. They rank 11th in field goal percentage allowed (47.8%), and 19th in blocks per game (4.5). They’re also 10th in points in the paint allowed per game (52.5). Jokic is massive but he’s not the most agile help defender. His partner, Aaron Gordon, is the shortest front court starter in this series.
Contrast that to the Timberwolves. They score the eighth most points in the paint at 54 points per game. That makes up 46 percent of their total scoring output. Minny has two very large players to throw at the Nuggets. Towns has a great back-to-the-basket game while Gobert is a beast on the boards. Add players like Mike Conley and Anthony Edwards, both of whom can get to the paint to either score or create.
The Timberwolves attacking the basket will open up opportunities for their numerous shooters all over the court. Their aggressiveness could also put Jokic on the bench with foul trouble. That’s why this is a potential problem for the Nuggets heading into the series. They need to figure out how to keep the Wolves out of the paint, or else, there’s an upset brewing in Denver.
With size being a problem for the Nuggets, the most important player in this series will be Porter Jr. While he’s not known for his defensive skills, Porter Jr. will have to serve as a kind of defensive glue guy for his team. He’s got the size at 6’10” and the mobility to be used in several different ways.
The obvious route is to have him help out Gordon and Jokic in the paint. Whether it’s corralling the rebound or shading the post player, Porter Jr. has to be able to toughen up and play in the paint this series. If he can’t hang with the big boys, the Nuggets could get eaten up by Gobert and Towns inside.
Another way Porter could be used is as an additional look to try and slow down Edwards. The primary defenders assigned to Edwards would most likely be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Bruce Brown. But Edwards is a handful. He’s built like a linebacker, strong and quick. MPJ has the size and athleticism to relieve his teammates and give Antman a different look on D.
For the Timberwolves, their best chance to win this series is to beat up the Nuggets in the paint. They have the match-up advantage now with Towns back from injury and Gobert seemingly with his head straight on. If they can dominate the Nuggets inside and drag the series out, Jokic might be spent by Game 6 or 7.
Make no mistake, the Nuggets are still the better team. They can overwhelm the Timberwolves early in the game with their efficient offense and solid defense. If they can run out to an early lead, that could take the fight out of Minny.
This series is all about asserting their dominance early on. Denver has to be on point to start the series. Don’t let their younger opponents gain any confidence. The Nuggets don’t want this to go all the way to a deciding Game 7 where the Wolves can pull off a surprise upset.