May 25, 2024

Meltdown against Minnesota: Why Denver is in serious trouble against these Timberwolves

DENVER — Michael Malone knew something like this was possible, that Minnesota was hungry enough to punk his Denver Nuggets if they didn’t show the proper level of fight.

He didn’t come right out and say he was worried on Sunday afternoon, if only because that’s no way to talk about your squad one day before they’re going back into the basketball battle. But with these relentless Timberwolves having taken Game 1 of the West semifinals the day before, and with his team’s bad habit of looking lifeless at the start having officially become a troubling postseason trend, the fiery 52-year-old who prides himself as a truth-teller gave a Game 2 forecast that would prove prescient in the most painful of ways for the defending champs.

“At some point, man, you’ve got to stop doing the same things,” Malone had said after spending the morning poring over game film with his team. “We have to do a better job — and our stars, in particular — have to do a better job of being ready to play, of setting the tone early. What are we waiting for?

“Now, we’re down 0-1 — like, what are you waiting for? We all know that going back to Minnesota down 0-2 is not the ideal situation, so I think (on Monday) night to start the game, you’ll have your answer. And if we come out the same way — lackadaisical, not physical, not urgent — well, then there’s an issue there, a deeper lying issue than just stopping Anthony Edwards. Where is our mental (state) at? And I fully expect our guys to be ready to go tomorrow night. I’d be shocked if they weren’t.”

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Malone was shocked after Game 2, all right, and he was hardly alone. Let us count the Nuggets’ deeper issues that were exposed like fresh wounds when Minnesota embarrassed Denver 106-80 at Ball Arena on Monday night.

Murray’s health, hellacious Wolves defense and his heat-pack hurl

Jamal Murray has every reason to be frustrated.

His body is failing him, as the left calf strain that he has been dealing with for quite some time now is clearly limiting his ability to be at his best. The Timberwolves are hounding him, with the trio of Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker taking turns making his life miserable while taking full advantage of the whistle that has been much more lenient since the league’s midseason officiating shift. This may have been the worst game of his illustrious postseason career, as he missed 15 of 18 shots and finished with just eight points and two assists in 36 minutes.

But his decision to throw a heat pack on the floor while sitting on the bench midway through the second quarter was just downright silly, and not becoming of a player who has typically been an incredible pro, on and off the floor, during his eight-year career. Timberwolves coach Chris Finch was spot-on when he called it “inexcusable and dangerous.”

Now we wait to see if the league chooses to simply fine Murray, or perhaps even suspend him for Game 3 on Friday in Minnesota. Worse yet, Murray compounded the awful optics by deciding not to speak with reporters after for the second consecutive game.

When it comes to the mind games that are always a part of this time of year, Murray is giving the Timberwolves every reason to believe that they’re living rent free in his head. Even if it’s the officials, and his inability to be healthy, that are the real root of his problems.

The truth about Murray is that he hasn’t been playing up to his lofty standards for some time now. It didn’t matter much in the first round, as his spectacular game-winners in Game 2 and Game 5 saved the day and helped Denver move on with relative ease. But take a look at Murray’s overall numbers in these playoffs as compared to his last…

This postseason (seven games): 20.4 points (37.5 percent shooting overall; 28.6 percent from 3-point range on six attempts per game), 6.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 0.4 steals, 2.4 turnovers per game

Last postseason (20 games): 26.1 points (47.3 percent; 39.6 percent from 3 on 7.5 attempts per), 7.1 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 2.5 turnovers per game

Doth protest too much: Malone and Gordon lose their cool

When it comes to the questionable handling of all these hard times, Murray wasn’t the only one who failed miserably. Malone went ballistic on official Marc Davis late in the first quarter, when he screamed at the veteran referee and somehow didn’t get a technical foul. (Davis would later tell a pool reporter that he didn’t hear Malone say anything unsportsmanlike.) As Malone would later explain, he was angry about a no-call moments earlier when Karl-Anthony Towns barreled over Murray down low en route to a bucket that put Minnesota up 20-17.


Arguing calls will always be a part of the game, but the intensity with which these Nuggets protested during Game 2 seemed to reflect a deeper sense of helplessness and desperation when it came to this Minnesota matchup. Malone, however, defended his choice.

“You know, as a coach, when you ask your players to go out there and fight and to compete at a higher level than you did in Game 1, when you have a player go out there and do that and try to do what you’re asking of them, and he’s not rewarded, that’s very frustrating,” Malone said. “When (Murray) is out there battling a guy like Karl-Anthony Towns, and trying to take a charge and what I thought was an easy call, and he’s not rewarded, you know, I owe it to Jamal Murray, or anybody else in that situation, to, to voice my opinion, to voice my concern to my disagreement. And that wound up being, I think, a big play because things kind of after that did not go our way.”

Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon earned a bizarre technical foul with 5:03 left in the third quarter when he marched over to official David Guthrie during a timeout and was T-ed up for his chosen message not far from where the Nuggets dancers were in the middle of their routine.

So, I asked Gordon, what was the specific complaint that he deemed so worthy of a mid-timeout walk to go share when your team was trailing by 28 points?

“They’re just draped all over Joker,” Gordon, who had a team-worst plus-minus of minus-33, answered of the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić. “I think they’re just hacking him — they’re hacking him. Yeah, and just not being able to communicate with the officials is frustrating as well. When you have to ask them a question and they don’t even look at you, they don’t even acknowledge you, it’s very frustrating.

“And I think they’re hacking Joker. I think he’s been getting fouled all year. I don’t think he shoots nearly enough free throws (compared to) what he should shoot. So yeah, it was just frustrating. I don’t like seeing my big fella be hacked with no calls.”

You know what’s even worse for the Nuggets to see from the “big fella,” though? Jokić looking nothing like the guy who is likely about to win his third MVP award this week.

A big (man) problem: Jokić struggles again

As deeper Denver issues go, it doesn’t get any bigger than the prospect of Jokić struggling. And for the second straight game — this time without Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert down low— Jokić was pedestrian (by his standards) yet again. He finished with 16 points (5 of 13 shooting), 16 rebounds, eight assists, four turnovers and a minus-16 mark, this after he shot just 11 of 25 in Game 1 while giving up seven turnovers (he had 32 points, nine assists and eight rebounds).

With Gobert missing Game 2 because of the birth of his first child, conventional wisdom would have one think that it would have been much easier for Jokić to work his magic this time around. But Towns (two blocks and a plus-21 mark to go with his 27 points and 12 rebounds) wasn’t having it, as the 28-year-old played the kind of physical defense that should change the way we talk about his game. Naz Reid (four blocks) did the same. Kyle Anderson, who started for Gobert, was effective as well (six points, nine rebounds, eight assists, one block, two steals and a plus-13 mark).

Jokić has looked uncomfortable, and out of sorts, in both games of this series. And for the first time since the 2022 playoffs, when the Nuggets fell to Golden State in five games in the first round, Jokić is failing to solve a postseason puzzle.

“If you guys watch (Minnesota’s) previous series against the Suns, they’re doing the same thing,” Jokić said. “They’re really into the body. They play really good defense. They played really good defense the whole season. That’s why they’re the No. 1 defense. They’re aggressive. They’re pushing the spot, all five (players) are aggressive. They know what they’re doing, and that’s why, probably, it’s hard to score.”

Just like Malone the day before, Jokić was asked to look ahead and predict what might come next for this Denver team that is in such serious trouble in this series. His answer, it’s safe to say, will do little to make Malone or any of the other Nuggets feel better about their level of belief at this one-sided juncture.

“I mean, I don’t know,” Jokić said with a telling shrug. “We’ll see in three days — four days.”

Required Reading

(Photo of Michael Malone: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images)