The Denver Nuggets defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 109-80 in Game 1 of the first round on Sunday night, taking a 1-0 series lead.

The Nuggets held the Timberwolves to 80 points, outscoring them 32-14 in the third quarter alone. In what was a massively anticipated game for the Nuggets, they brought the heat on both ends of the floor, and the Timberwolves struggled to match their intensity and discipline. The game was over by the end of the third quarter, though some starter minutes did happen in the fourth.

Jamal Murray led all scorers with 24 points, struggling with his efficiency early on but finding a nice rhythm in the fourth quarter. Murray made his playoff return after missing the last two postseasons, over 900 days since his last game in the 2020 bubble playoffs.

Nikola Jokić fouled out in his 27 minutes, but he was fantastic up until that point, setting the tone in his matchups with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. He had just 13 points on 6-of-12 from the field, but Jokić grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out six assists in the process, committing just one turnover and playing with the kind of poise and intensity the Nuggets needed.

But the most important factor of the night was allowing just 80 points.

“It was a stellar night of defense overall for our group,” shared Michael Malone postgame. “16 to 3 (Nuggets vs Timberwolves points) in transition, and to out-rebound them by 16, I think on the season we were 43-11 when out-rebounding our opponent. That’s a huge stat for us, and that shows that you’re physical.”

The intensity was there all night, and the Nuggets didn’t back down at any point. Kyle Anderson and Christian Braun got into it in the late third quarter after things had already been mostly decided, and that was the first signs of what should be a chippy rest of the series.

Here’s how Game 1 happened on Sunday night:

A defensive masterclass

The Nuggets allowed 23, 21, 14, and 22 points in each of the first, second, third, and fourth quarters. The T’Wolves shot just 37% from the field and 30.6% from three-point range, They also attempted 16 total free throws and made just nine of them.

Denver’s defensive effort and intensity was a major factor on that end.

“I just gave our Defensive Player of the Game award to the whole team,” Malone declared.

“I just think we played really physical, played hard,” Murray shared. “We were all on the same page communicating. We used the week really well. Everybody was locked in. That was the most I’ve seen guys locked in.”

The Timberwolves struggled to generate good shots for themselves with the Nuggets locked in as much as they were. There were certainly open shots that the Nuggets allowed at various points, but not enough to eventually tilt the game back in their favor. The Nuggets made the Timberwolves work for those shots every possession, and every single Nuggets player made a defensive impact with their effort and discipline.

Jokić was always going to be a defensive question mark, but he showed up in a big way despite the foul trouble. The Timberwolves attacked him with some success for brief moments, but the majority of Jokić’s minutes involved great defensive contests, deflections, and most importantly, rebounds. Jokić logged 14 rebounds in his 27 minutes, and the Timberwolves notched just five offensive rebounds the entire evening. They lost the hustle battle and shot worse. That’s a bad combination.

Murray and Porter improve throughout the evening

Murray struggled early in his playoff return. It had been over 900 days since Murray played playoff basketball (the 2020 bubble playoffs) and the rust showed a bit. He began the game 3-of-10 from the field and made some questionable plays as a playmaker.

“I had a bunch of adrenaline running,” Murray shared postgame. “I hadn’t felt that excitement in a minute, probably since the beginning of the season.”

After halftime though, Murray found his offensive rhythm, scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter and hitting multiple three-pointers. He had a lob pass to DeAndre Jordan toward the end of the third quarter that capped off what was an incredible third quarter run.

“I got the jitters out of the way. The team told me to keep playing, keep shooting. I was diving all over the floor, trying to get myself going, and it turned out to be a decent game.”

The team knows how much Murray was pressing with anticipation for this one, but they also see how he’s improved since his last outing in the bubble too.

“I told him the other day, I think he’s better now than before his injury,” Porter said of Murray and the season he’s had. “I know he probably doesn’t feel it, but just his all-around game, his awareness…being able to play a true point guard for our team and knowing the guys around him, where to get them open.”

Porter also struggled with his shot at the beginning of the game, but he found ways to impact the outcome as a cutter and rebounder. Porter grabbed 11 rebounds on the evening and had some impressive and athletic plays around the rim.

“I definitely think rebounding is a big part of what I’m trying to focus on throughout the playoffs,” Porter shared. “When we out-rebound teams, we’re pretty hard to beat.”

Porter acknowledged his shooting struggles early, but he was able to overcome that throughout the evening. Porter went 4-of-9 from three even after starting 1-of-5. His four-point play in the third quarter was one of the statements the Nuggets made with their shooting just on another level from the Timberwolves.

Matchups defining the series

Nikola Jokić was on point in the post throughout the evening, going at all three of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Kyle Anderson in different 1-on-1 situations. The Timberwolves rarely sent double teams, which allowed Jokić plenty of opportunities to display resplendent footwork. He had it going in the first half with 13 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. The second half was mostly used to set up his teammates and run some different offensive sets, but the Nuggets know they can go back to Jokić in the post whenever they need to.

Aaron Gordon played just 10 minutes in the first half, racking up three fouls while guarding Karl-Anthony Towns. The Nuggets attempted to be physical throughout this game, and while their defense was successful as a whole, it put them behind the eight-ball with foul trouble later in the game. Gordon and Jokić racked up the fouls, including a flagrant foul on Jokić in the fourth quarter of a blowout.

Still, Gordon and Jeff Green did a great job in their minutes guarding KAT. The T’Wolves big man was rattled throughout the game and only started finding a rhythm as a scorer and shooter in the fourth quarter. Towns scored just 11 points on 15 shots, and the Nuggets won that matchup battle by starting a power forward on him all night and switching almost every action.

The Nuggets ran an eight-man rotation for the majority of the game but used DeAndre Jordan as a change of pace backup center. Jordan matched up with Gobert in the third quarter and even caught two alley-oops, providing a nice above the rim threat in the pick and roll.

Overall, the Nuggets set the bar high in Game 1. They reached a level on both ends of the floor that the Timberwolves couldn’t match. The Nuggets defense was perhaps much better than the Timberwolves anticipated it being, and that caught them off guard.

There will be adjustments made in Game 2. Towns is likely to shoot better during the rest of the series. Gobert probably won’t be a minus-28 in his 26 minutes like he was tonight. Kyle Anderson was effective at times, and it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he moved into the starting lineup as soon as next game.

But for the Nuggets to punch that hard that quickly…they mean business. Let’s see if they can maintain the focus necessary for the rest of the series.

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