The Denver Nuggets lost 111-98 to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a game that was over midway through the third quarter.

“We came out and got punched in the mouth,” proclaimed Reggie Jackson postgame.

The Nuggets went down by as many as 26 points tonight in a game that had major playoff and seeding implications. The Timberwolves were definitively better tonight, playing a more complete and engaged game from the opening tip, and they now have a 2-1 advantage over the Nuggets in head-to-head matchups. The Nuggets also dropped to the third seed in the Western Conference behind both Minnesota and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We were not ready to play,” Michael Malone said of Denver’s poor first half effort. “We weren’t physical. We weren’t aggressive. That first half, we deserved to be booed off the court to be quite honest.”

Nikola Jokic had 32 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists, staying on the floor late into the fourth quarter as the Nuggets attempted to mount a comeback. Jokic worked his way through a physical and imposing Timberwolves defense, shooting 11-of-24 from the field and 10-of-13 from the free throw line. The Nuggets never got closer than an 11-point margin when trying to catch the Timberwolves though, and the starters ultimately left the floor near the very end.

“I was surprised he played tonight to be quite honest,” Michael Malone said of Nikola Jokic, who’s been dealing with a right wrist injury. “His wrist is really giving him a lot of trouble.”

In the first half, the T’Wolves were mechanical in their precision on the offensive end, generated good shot after good shot against a Nuggets defense that wasn’t ready to go. Denver went down 62-43 after halftime, and rather than getting back into it later on, the game spiraled during the third quarter. The Nuggets simply couldn’t make enough shots to get back in it, shooting 8-of-28 from three-point range, and with Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint defensively, the Nuggets couldn’t get many two-pointers either.

“Especially in a matchup like this understanding the magnitude of it, honestly, playoff chase for first. It’s a team that we’re battling with…I was very disappointed with the way we came out there with our approach,” said Jackson. “Happy with the way we came out in the second half, but we have to be better.”

 Outside of Jokic, the Nuggets next two leading scorers were Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon who each tied for 14 points. The Nuggets needed better production and involvement from those guys, but with the way the Timberwolves were guarding them (with Jalen McDaniels and Rudy Gobert respectively) it’s not a surprise that they struggled to get free.

“They assign Rudy Gobert to Aaron [Gordon], and he just kinda plays free safety and roams the paint,” Malone said of Minnesota’s defensive coverages making it difficult to involve Aaron Gordon. “In those instances, obviously Aaron, like he did early tonight, [has to find] the gaps, the openings in the paint, playing behind the defense, as well as create 2-on-1 opportunities on and off the ball.”

In their place, Reggie Jackson shouldered a heavier burden as a scorer and playmaker. Jackson played 37 minutes before fouling out with 12 points and 10 rebounds, only shooting 4-of-15 from the field and 2-of-5 from three in the process. Jackson did have some nice connections as a passer with both Jokic and DeAndre Jordan, but he also had several missed layups around the rim and some questionable decisions on both ends.

Malone was adamant though that he was happy with Jackson’s effort, saying he left it all out there on the floor and competed until the end, the implication of course being that some Nuggets didn’t do so.

 Beyond the starters, Christian Braun struggled tonight on both ends of the floor, scoring just eight points on 2-of-10 from the field. Braun was perhaps the starter most affected by Gobert’s rim protection, but even when Gobert wasn’t in the vicinity, Braun botched an open layup. He also struggled at times in defensive coverage, not cutting off driving and passing lanes correctly and allowing easy attempts for Minnesota.

The aforementioned Jordan had some nice moments as a scorer and rebounder, but he was perhaps the only bench player that had a positive impact. Collin Gillespie struggled in just under five first quarter minutes and didn’t see the floor again. Peyton Watson played just 11 minutes and didn’t make any impact on either end. Justin Holiday played a bit more, but he shot just 1-of-4 from three-point range, and the Nuggets could have used some of those shots.

Without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets become dangerously thin on the offensive end, and the Timberwolves exploited that. They held Jokic to under 50% from the field, limited the shot attempts for Porter and Gordon, and shut off the paint for just about everyone else. The Nuggets needed some three-point spacing, but they didn’t get it against one of the most dynamic defensive units in the NBA.

How much does this game matter? It’s difficult to tell. The Nuggets don’t need the top seed in the Western Conference in order to advance to the NBA Finals, and it’s a good thing, because the dream of being the top seed is mostly dead. With the Thunder and T’Wolves both ahead of Denver in the standings and with just eight games to go, the Nuggets would really need to push hard to get a higher seed, and it just doesn’t seem smart for them to do that.

With Jamal Murray sidelined for longer than expected, Nikola Jokic dealing with a wrist injury again, and Aaron Gordon recovering from playing high intensity minutes in February and March, the Nuggets could stand to take their foot off the gas, accept whatever seed they get, and go into the playoffs as healthy as possible. Denver’s extremely likely to be a top three seed no matter what they do, and that’s probably good enough.

“I think you should go there and win every game and beat the best, probably,” Nikola Jokic commented on Denver chasing the top seed. “I just want us to play good and be healthy. I think that’s the most important thing.”

We will see how hard they push in the final eight games of the year.

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