The lexicon of sports writers contains the world’s largest collection of cliches and idioms, none of which are safe from gratuitous usage. ‘Must win game’, ‘playoff-like atmosphere’, ‘one game at a time’ — we’ve heard them all in abundance down the stretch of this wild Western Conference playoff race.
For as exhausted as they’ve become, however, they all fit Thursday night’s game between the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves like a glove. The Nuggets outlasted the Wolves 100-96 in the biggest game of the year despite shooting below 40 percent from the field. This was a massive win.
The Nuggets were without Gary Harris, but the Timberwolves were again without their all-world wing, Jimmy Butler — despite Butler warming up and being activated before the game. In a game without Harris, Denver was in desperate need of a vintage performance from their star center, Nikola Jokic. They wouldn’t get one.
The big Serbian finished the first half 3-13 from the field as he put together one of his worst halves of basketball that he’s played all season. It didn’t help that Paul Millsap also struggled mightily from the field and Denver found themselves in desperate need of someone, anyone, to make a positive impact in the first half. It never really happened.
The Nuggets shot well below 50 percent in the first 24 minutes of play. They were disjointed, they were tense and they were ice cold — but Minnesota was too. The Wolves couldn’t buy a bucket — especially from deep — and they struggled to find clean looks at the rim. Andrew Wiggins chucked up air balls, Derrick Rose tried his very best to lose the game for the Minnesota, and even Taj Gibson forced up a three in a desperate attempt to generate some offense. Despite being out-rebounded, out-shot from the floor and a 9-2 advantage for the Wolves in second chance points, the Nuggets trailed by just three at the half.
The Wolves opened up the third quarter on a 9-2 run and a palpable tension filled the Pepsi Center. Nuggets fans have seen those types of runs before and they’ve watched one too many important games slip away from their young team. This one appeared ready to follow that trend. But the Nuggets made a run.
With virtually no one else locked in on offense, young Jamal Murray tried to put his fingerprints on this one. He knocked down a three, and then another, the second time drawing a foul in the process. He hit the free throw, and cut the lead to three. The two teams exchanged buckets for the remainder of the quarter as neither was able to engineer a real run. Murray cooled off, and again the Nuggets found themselves looking around for a savior — anyone who appeared willing and able to win them this game.
Devin Harris picked one hell of a time to have his best game as a Nugget.
‘The other Harris’ knocked down three bombs in the final 91 seconds of the quarter and Denver entered the fourth quarter up seven after a monster run to end the third.
As has become customary in Denver’s home games, this contest tightened up considerably in the final quarter. As usual, the game descended into madness before coming down to the final possessions.
While the Nuggets were able to contain the Wolves on offense, Minnesota got its usual production form their world-beating, interior-defender eating center, Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns finished this game with 26 points, 13 rebounds and four assists on 10-16 from the field. He was terrific, and the Nuggets caught the biggest of breaks when he fouled out with 1:46 remaining in a tie game.
Towns had picked up his fifth midway earlier in the quarter, but Denver failed to take advantage by attacking him on the defensive end. They opted for jump shots over post ups and never really challenged him to defend without fouling.
The Nuggets were trailing by one when Murray and Jokic forced a switch on the left side of the court. Murray had Towns guarding him, but very little time left on the shot clock to make anything happen. He stepped back for a jumper near the three point-line, but Towns closed out quickly. Murray pump faked and Towns left his feet — a cardinal sin with five fouls — he came crashing down into Murray who chucked up a shot with his left hand. He hit both of his free throws and Denver took the lead.
The Nuggets led by one with roughly 90 seconds left and found themselves needing a stop in the worst way. Remarkably, Minnesota’s starting point guard, Jeff Teague, whipped an errant pass in an attempt to swing the ball along the perimeter — the pass sailed out of bounds. The crowd leapt to its feet.
The Nuggets were fouled on their next possession and Wilson Chandler knocked down both of his free throws to push the lead to three. Again, the Nuggets needed a stop. Again, they got one. Nemanja Bjelica missed a tough layup attempt and Denver was gifted an opportunity to put the game away.
With 36 seconds remaining, Millsap caught the ball in the right corner. He wanted the three, but the closeout was timely. Millsap pump faked, drove and fired up a floater. He missed by about five feet. Somehow, Millsap was able to wrestle away the offensive rebound as he crashed the glass. He drew a foul. He hit his free throws. Five point game.
Would it be a Nuggets game if they didn’t leave the door open? They answer to that question is no, and that proverbial door was left open once again when the Nuggets fouled Gibson as he knocked down a layup. He took his free point at the line and made it a one possession game.
The Nuggets had possession but there was thirty seconds left. Minnesota didn’t have to foul — they only needed a stop, and they actually got one. Will Barton missed a pull up jumper with six seconds left. An audible gasp echoed around the arena, and then Nikola Jokic redeemed himself with a game-sealing, tip in layup. Ball game.
Nuggets 100, Timberwolves 96.
Denver will travel to Los Angeles on Friday as they prepare for a crucial matchup with the Clippers on Saturday night. That game tips off at 1:30pm MT.