As the biggest game of the season for both the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves tipped off at 7 p.m. on April Fool’s Day, both teams had their playoff futures hanging in the balance and both saw an opportunity to take a significant step closer to their best possible outcome.

If the Nuggets found a way to win, they would all but assure themselves a top-six seed in the Western Conference while climbing one game closer to homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

For Minnesota, they were desperately trying to catch the Nuggets and a top-six seed in the Western Conference so a head-to-head win over Denver this late in the season was not only important, but virtually necessary.

In order for either team to find the success they were working towards, they needed to rely on each of their respective All-Star centers in Nikola Jokic and Karl Anthony-Towns.

“Karl Anthony-Towns is an All-Star, All-NBA type players,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said pregame. “It is always a great matchup, physical, they go at each other, and I think both of these guys are ready for this game tonight.”

In the first quarter, Malone was proven right as both centers came out with a fury. Jokic had 12 points, four rebounds, and three assists while Towns put up 16 points and two rebounds. Neither center missed a single shot as they combined to shoot 10 of 10 from the field.

Every time Towns had a chance to get physical with Jokic, he did. It did not matter if he was facing up for a jumper from the baseline, Towns made sure to try and get his shoulder into Jokic to create more room. Every time Towns attempted to back Jokic down in the mid-post, Towns would keep his elbows wide to make Jokic feel any move he made. Even with Towns would take Jokic off the dribble from beyond the arc, he kept his shoulder low and squarely in the center of Jokic’s torso. Towns wanted every single opportunity to assert his will on Jokic.

“They are two of the more talented bigs in the league obviously and they are division opponents; all of that familiarity breeds some contempt if you will, which I think is great,” Malone said. “I also think, if I am another big and I am playing against the MVP, I am going to try to show everybody that, ‘you know what, I am just as talented as this guy’. You would expect that from a great player like Karl. ‘I am going against the MVP and I have a great chance to show everybody else that I am in the same conversation’. That is his mindset and that should be his mindset quite frankly.”

That aggression and fight that Towns played with was a direct contradiction to the Nuggets lack of effort on defense in the first half. Outside of Jokic and Hyland, the focus and effort on defense was more inconsistent than Denver weather. At one point, it was a downpour 3-pointers and at others, Denver was dealing with an avalanche of paint points from the Timberwolves. Minnesota also was getting out in transition has if they had tornado-caliber winds at their back. Denver made everything Minnesota did on offense look far too easy.

Despite that, Jokic continued to do exactly what he does. He did not get caught up in the one-on-one battle between him and Towns the way that Towns was. He was focused on finding his teammates by attracting multiple defenders. Jokic was prioritizing finding his spots in the flow of the offense; not in spite of it. He was playing team basketball while Towns tried consistently prove he could hang with Jokic, who had the best MVP odds according to FanDuel Sportsbook heading into the final game of the season.

With the Timberwolves shooting out of their mind and the Nuggets clearly not putting forth great effort on defense, Minnesota held a lead for most of the first half, but despite their incredibly discouraging defense, the Nuggets were within five points by a score of 70-65 as the second quarter came to a close. Denver had the win in their grasp so long as they could get some defensive urgency into the game.

That defensive production never materialized.

No matter how much Malone implored his team to get back on defense and lock-in on the game plan at halftime and in seemingly every huddle, his team did not.

Denver finished with 18 turnovers which led to an atrocious 30 points for the Timberwolves that the Nuggets just gave away, but the issues did not end there. The Nuggets allowed Minnesota to grab 10 offensive rebounds which led to 17 second-chance points and also hit 19 of their 40 attempted 3-pointers.

“We failed in all three areas so it is frustrating,” Malone said. “We continue to beat ourselves. Eighteen (turnovers) for 30 points; six (turnovers) for nine (points) in the fourth quarter. We only gave up 10 offensive rebounds which is not a bad number, but they converted that into 17 points. And then they hit 19 3-pointers. So you give up the 3, give up the glass, and give up transition points off your turnovers, you make it hard to beat a team that has a lot of weapons.”

At one point in the third quarter, Minnesota had a three-on-one fastbreak and the only Nuggets starter to even attempt to get back on defense was Jokic, who stopped the Timberwolves from scoring twice while all alone on that end of the floor. No other Nuggets player even got into a jog to get back and help the reigning MVP.

Still, the issues did not end there. Beyond the 30 points off turnovers allowed, 19 3-pointers hit against them, and the 17 second-chance points, Denver also fouled so often that Minnesota had 36 free throw attempts of which they made 31 of their shots from the charity stripe.

After the game, when Malone was asked about all of the free throw shots allowed, he focused on the bench unit’s negative impact.

“Stop fouling because we are fouling. The whole bench is bitching and complaining, but we are fouling. We are fouling,” Malone said. “We foul jump shooters at a ridiculous rate, we defend with our hands, and our second unit has to be better with that. Teams are getting into the bonus in the second and fourth quarter with around eight minutes to go. So when the starting group comes in, they are being forced to defend without fouling for eight minutes which is really hard. We have to be a lot smarter, we have to show our hands, and we have to be a lot more disciplined in how we guard. 36 free throw attempts is an outrageous number and when you add up the turnovers, free throws, points off offensive rebounds; it makes it really really hard.

“The fact that we were in the game in light of all of that is really remarkable.”

Simply, every point of emphasis Malone outlined entering their Friday night duel with Minnesota fell on deaf ears. Malone did not fault his team’s effort, but their execution left a lot to be desired.

“I thought our guys played hard,” Malone explained. “I do not think we were out there going through the motions, if you will. I never at one point during the game thought we are not playing hard or are not competing. Were we playing smart at all times? No. Did they outwork us on the glass at times? Yes. But overall, I do not think this is a game where I can point to a lack of urgency or fight.”

Now, the Nuggets have just four games left to keep the Timberwolves from eclipsing them as the new sixth seed in the Western Conference. Denver still has a two-game lead after the loss on Friday night, but they do not own the tiebreaker over Minnesota which means Denver essentially only has a one-game lead.

The risk of the play-in tournament is real, and the Nuggets have no one but themselves to blame. Still, they control their own destiny and of their four remaining games, three are winnable.

“We have four games to go, we are going to LA tomorrow and that is all we are worried about right now; to find a way to be better to beat the Lakers,” Malone said.