The Denver Nuggets had lost four of five games, were not playing for each other, and were clearly in a funk sine the All-Star break had come and gone. They were a mediocre 4-4 since the All-Star break and suddenly looked like they could be in danger of losing control of the second seed in the Western Conference.
With all of that worry circulating around the organization, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone challenge his team to choose how they were going to finish the season during an intense film session. Did the Nuggets want to limp into the playoffs or did they want to do everything they could to fight their way to owning the first seed in the Western Conference? They have the talent to contend for the top spot in the West; all the need to do is fight for it. Their first chance to prove themselves came at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of Denver’s division rivals and the team that knocked them out of the playoffs on game 82 last season.
Denver did not disappoint. Their starters were strong, played for one another, and made a point to feed Nikola Jokic as often as possible. Additionally, their bench unit returned to their lethal ways. Denver evened up finishing the night with a 133-107 win over the Timberwolves for their 44th win of the year against just 22 losses. Denver also moved to 9-2 in the Northwest Division.
To begin the game, the Nuggets had a slightly different look on offense. Instead of allowing Jamal Murray to run the show as a point guard, it seemed that Nuggets head coach Michael Malone elected to put the ball in Will Barton’s hands to initiate the offense. Early on, the change paid dividends for the Nuggets. Denver’s starters were humming offensively as they managed to score seemingly at will. The other reason that Denver’s offense was strong to start the game was because Denver was finally playing through Nikola Jokic each and every possession.
Then there was another alteration that Malone made. Instead of bringing in Isaiah Thomas off the bench, Malone kept the former MVP candidate on the pine and shortened his rotation. In his place, Murray was reinserted at the end of the first quarter as Malone began experimenting with a nine-man rotation.
That decision from Malone was a massive difference maker. The Nuggets bench unit, without Thomas, went on a 17-4 run in the last 5:25 of the first quarter. That big run from Denver gave them a 31-20 advantage over the Timberwolves after the first 12 minutes of play.
The second quarter was much more of a back-and-forth affair. The Wolves had a rekindled spirit to begin the second frame and they came out swinging. Still, Denver did not blink and continued to attack. They pushed their lead as high as 11 points, but were unable to land a haymaker to put away Minnesota early mostly because of their lack of 3-point attempts. Denver only took seven triples in the first 24 minutes of the game.
Before the game, Malone stated that he wants Denver to play for each other, stop turning the ball over, and to play through Jokic more. At the end of the first half, the Nuggets had eight players with at least six points, they had 21 assists on 24 made baskets, and just seven turnovers. Additionally, Jokic led Denver in total shots taken and he also had five assists.
By the time the first half came to an end, the Nuggets had a 58-48 lead and were doing everything their coach was hoping for.
The start the third quarter is when Denver turned on the afterburners, but just like the first quarter, their execution started to slightly faltered as time went on. There is no discrediting Denver’s energy, but they would go up by 17 points and then they wouldn’t be able to put away Minnesota. The biggest reason for the Timberwolves consistent resurgence was Karl-Anthony Towns who was nothing short of an absolute monster against Denver.
Halfway through the third quarter, Jokic picked up his fourth foul which helped Minnesota close within single digits. Then, just as it was in the first quarter, Denver’s bench unit came into the game and took care of business. Once the third quarter ended, Denver’s lead had ballooned to 16 points. They went into the final quarter up 94-78.
The fourth quarter was a mere formality as Denver put away the Timberwolves early with some hot shooting from 3-point range. Murray in particular went red hot and began to shoot the Timberwolves out of the game. Still, Minnesota never folded and forced Denver to play their regular rotation for most of the fourth quarter, but the Timberwolves were never really within reach. By the time the four-minute mark came around, Denver was up by 22 points and both teams emptied their bench. Denver eventually won 133-107 and move to 28-6 at home.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Nuggets used a team effort to get themselves back onto a winning path. Jokic finished with 18 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists on 9-of-14 shooting. Murray came alive in the third quarter and finished with 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting as well as three steals. Morris led the bench unit to perfection and finished with 16 points, five rebounds, and six assists while shooting 6-of-8 from the field.
Next, the Nuggets will stay in Denver. They have two more games in the Pepsi Center before going back out on the road. Next, Denver will host the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night at 8:30 MST for yet another nationally televised game.