After a long awaited play-in game last night, the Denver Nuggets finally know who they will face in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs: the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves have been mostly snakebitten for the 2022-23 season. After trading for star defensive center Rudy Gobert in the offseason, Minnesota got off to a rough start, going 16-21 in their first 37 games of the regular season. In that time, incumbent star center Karl-Anthony Towns suffered a major calf injury that sidelined the big man for the majority of the season. Minnesota struggled to integrate Gobert as well, and despite clearly having talent, the T’Wolves struggled to find their footing.

Immediately after that 16-21 stretch though, the T’Wolves went 12-5 in their next 17 games, righting the ship behind strong play from young shooting guard Anthony Edwards. The dynamic star averaged 27.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.5 steals per game on 46.1-37.8-83.7 shooting splits, taking over as the best player during that stretch and making his first All-Star appearance as a result. Soon after, the T’Wolves trading point guard D’Angelo Russell for a veritable haul: Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and multiple second round picks. Conley’s stability and veteran leadership made an immediate impact in Minnesota, and his ability to run pick and roll for himself and others at a high level have made the T’Wolves more dangerous.

Then, at the end of the season, the T’Wolves added Towns back into the mix, healed from his calf injury. In his final eight regular season games, Towns averaged 20.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game while maintaining impressive 47.2-46.8-83.9 shooting splits. His dynamic scoring and shooting talent have given the T’Wolves a jolt of energy at the right time.

The team has still been up and down since then, most notably defined in their last three games. Game 82 of the season saw the Timberwolves players fighting amongst each other given the high pressure competitive situation. Rudy Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson in the shoulder. Young athletic forward Jaden McDaniels punched a wall in frustration. Gobert was suspended for the play-in game against the Lakers on Tuesday night that Minnesota lost. McDaniels suffered a fractured hand and is unlikely to be available in Minnesota’s first round series against the Nuggets.

But the most important game was the last one, a do-or-die matchup with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. The T’Wolves had homecourt in that game and fed off their crowd, winning the game in blowout fashion. Towns, Gobert, and Edwards all had strong performances, and Alexander-Walker, who averaged 15.5 minutes a night in 23 games for the T’Wolves after the trade, played a whopping 37 minutes while defending his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. NAW had 12 points, six assists, three steals, and two blocks and was a +18 in his minutes, making a major impact in place of McDaniels, the team’s primary perimeter defender.

So, those are the T’Wolves. They’ve turned things around late with Conley and Towns providing major impact after the trade deadline. The T’Wolves are still flawed though, and they don’t have a ton of depth due to injuries to McDaniels and talented backup big man Naz Reid. There’s no doubt that the T’Wolves are talented though, and if their team plays up to capacity, the Nuggets will be pushed in this series.

Denver Nuggets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves first-round NBA playoffs schedule:

  • Game 1: Sunday, April 16, Timberwolves at Nuggets, Ball Arena, 8:30 p.m. MST, TNT
  • Game 2: Wednesday, April 19, Timberwolves at Nuggets, Ball Arena, 8 p.m. MST, TNT
  • Game 3: Friday, April 21, Nuggets at Timberwolves, Target Center, 7:30 p.m. MST, ESPN
  • Game 4: Sunday, April 23, Nuggets at Timberwolves, Target Center, 7:30 p.m. MST, TNT
  • Game 5: Tuesday, April 25, Timberwolves at Nuggets, Ball Arena (Time, channel TBA)*
  • Game 6:Thursday, April 27,  Nuggets at Timberwolves, Target Center (Time, channel TBA)*
  • Game 7: Saturday, April 29, Timberwolves at Nuggets, Ball Arena (Time, channel TBA)*

*if necessary

Previous regular season matchups between the Nuggets and T’Wolves are mostly moot. They split the series 2-2, but Towns didn’t play in any of the four matchups, and the Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back in three of them. Conley also didn’t appear in a Timberwolves uniform until after the final matchup. The last time both teams faced off though, the Nuggets won 146-112 with head coach Chris Finch (former Nuggets assistant) sitting the T’Wolves starters after halftime. The frontcourt of Nikola Jokić, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. were all fantastic in that one.

What’s more important than any one game are the matchups.

Jokić will be tasked with scoring on and guarding both Towns and Gobert in this series. The T’Wolves are likely to stagger their star centers for all 48 minutes of a game, meaning Jokić and the Nuggets will see three different combinations: Towns + Gobert, just Towns, and just Gobert. In the minutes with both centers out there, Jokić will probably guard Gobert and Gordon will probably guard Towns. The T’Wolves are likely to challenge Jokić as the rim protector in pick and roll in those moments, meaning a steady diet of Conley-Gobert, Edwards-Gobert, and even Anderson-Gobert pick and rolls with Towns as an elite floor spacer. That will make Gordon’s job as a weak side helper more difficult and put a lot of pressure on Jokić to guard in space well.

In the minutes when Towns is at center, the Nuggets could put Jokić on him at times but may also decide to put Jokić on Anderson or Prince, whoever is the nominal power forward. That could potentially save Jokić from some critical foul trouble and allow Jokić to continue to be as impactful as he usually is on the offensive end. Whoever is the Nuggets power forward at the time (Gordon, Jeff Green, Michael Porter Jr., Vlatko Čančar, or Zeke Nnaji) would then be tasked with guarding Towns, a difficult assignment but not the worst given Towns’ perimeter oriented scoring.

On the other end, the T’Wolves will throw an exceptional number of coverages, matchups, and gimmicks at Jokić to try and confuse him. With the T’Wolves’ size on the interior, there are a number of things they can try with the intention of forcing the Nuggets into something they’re uncomfortable doing. In one of the regular season matchups, Anderson started at power forward and guarded Jokić while Gobert slid over to Gordon. That allowed Gobert to roam in help defense, and his ability to prevent all shots at the rim slowed down Denver’s offense on a back-to-back. The T’Wolves will try similar tactics involving Towns guarding Jokić, or they may simply have Gobert guard Jokić and bring extra help.

However the T’Wolves decide to guard Jokić though, it will mean that Jamal Murray, Porter, and Gordon will all have opportunities to step up at various moments. Murray will be asked to be the secondary scorer with Jokić out there, the primary scorer when Jokić sits, and a facilitator at all moments. If he keeps the offense humming at all times, it will be difficult for the T’Wolves to keep pace. If the T’Wolves are so focused on Jokić and Murray, then Porter and Gordon will have their own opportunities to shine. Porter was dynamic as a secondary scorer against the T’Wolves during the regular season and will be the third or fourth priority for the T’Wolves defense. Gordon will have to pick his spots carefully. Challenging Gobert at the rim is good if it works, but if Gobert’s up to the task, repeatedly going at the Stifle Tower has led to the demise of many great rim attackers. Gordon will have to hit some threes as well. The T’Wolves will be daring him to shoot.

The talent level between these two teams is more even than Nuggets fans want to admit, but also further apart than Denver’s largest naysayers. The T’Wolves, depending on who you ask, have three All-Star caliber players. They also have a strong supporting cast of capable veterans. They’re going to be extremely feisty, but the chemistry is a fair question mark. On top of one teammate punching another, the T’Wolves just don’t have the same level of experience playing together this season that the Nuggets do: Denver’s starting five has played nearly 1,500 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass. Minnesota’s lineup of Conley, Edwards, Anderson, Towns, and Gobert is at just 56 possessions on the year (not counting this last play-in game). Though all of those guys are veterans now and understand how to fit in the NBA, the playoffs provide an extra layer of pressure.

How the Nuggets and T’Wolves each handle that pressure remains to be seen. The Nuggets know what’s at stake here though. It’s been awhile since they were the more desperate team, but that’s what they should be in Game 1 of this series on Sunday night. If the Nuggets play with a serious level of focus and urgency, there’s no reason why they can’t win this series in convincing fashion. They will need to win the series convincingly if they want any chance of winning a championship this year. Teams that play in a long playoff series early don’t often advance deep into the playoffs, and this year is unlikely to be the exception.

Given the unpredictable nature of the T’Wolves and their high level of talent in comparison to a normal eighth seed, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they challenge the Nuggets early and often. For anyone that actually believes in the Nuggets’ level of talent, fit, and desire to prove themselves though, a series upset would be a bridge too far.

It’s time for the Nuggets to validate the faith placed in them. There are no excuses anymore.