May 25, 2024

Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards has a message for the Nuggets: This series is not over

The clock ticked down on another deflating Minnesota Timberwolves performance at home, and a rejuvenated Jamal Murray appeared to be having some fun at the Wolves’ expense. Anthony Edwards saw it the whole way, and he started clapping his way toward Murray on his way off of the court.

There was a part of Edwards that hated to see Murray yapping at the moment after his Denver Nuggets had just evened their playoffs series at 2-2 with their second straight win at Target Center. There was another part of him that loved it.

Edwards loves a fight. And that’s exactly what the Timberwolves have now after squandering a 2-0 lead in the series by dropping both of their home games, including a 115-107 loss in Game 4 on Sunday night. Edwards didn’t take kindly to Murray’s end-of-game theatrics, but Murray earned the right to preen with the punches he threw in Minneapolis after being bottled up in Denver. That left Edwards with a taste of blood in his mouth and a smile on his face as he chirped right back at him.

“I just told his ass we love that,” Edwards said. “Keep talking that. That’s what we like. Well, I loved it.”

If the Timberwolves and their fans need a source of inspiration as the series shifts back to Denver for Game 5 on Tuesday night, they need only look at their 22-year-old superstar. He has set the franchise record for points in a playoff game twice this series, first with his 43 in Game 1 and then with 44 on Sunday night. He also had five rebounds, five assists, five 3-pointers and two steals in over 45 minutes in Game 4, looking every bit the worthy adversary for the defending champions.

He has looked ready for the playoff lights from the first time he bathed in them as a 20-year-old, a 36-point jaw-dropper in a Game 1 win in Memphis in 2022. During these two dispiriting defeats at home in front of a raucous Target Center crowd, Edwards’ perspective in handling the ups and the downs has been beyond his years.

“I don’t think they got any momentum. We won two games. They won two games,” Edwards said with a shrug. “At this point, it’s whoever wins two games. I don’t know how people look at it, but I look at it like I’m happy. I’m ready.”

He just needs some help. Edwards made 16 of 25 shots (64 percent), including 5 of 8 on 3s (62.5 percent) and 7 of 8 (87.5 percent) from the free-throw line. He played 45 minutes, 20 seconds. The Wolves outscored Denver by five in those minutes and lost the 2:40 he sat by a staggering 13 points. His teammates shot 40 percent for the game and 30 percent from deep.

Karl-Anthony Towns had a woeful night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting while getting worked by Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon in the frontcourt. This was the first time Towns has played on Mother’s Day since he lost his mom, Jacqueline, to complications from COVID-19 in 2020.

Perhaps he was too wound up because of the significance of the day, but this was not the same player who has been so effective through these playoffs. His energy on the offensive end was frenetic, and he missed his first seven shots and was 1 of 10 at halftime.

“Things weren’t falling today. I take responsibility for that,” Towns said. “I know I put the work in, so I feel good about the work I put in. It’s shown this playoffs. It’s unfortunate that on Mother’s Day, I have a shooting performance like that.”

On defense, Towns was a revelation in Games 1 and 2 in Denver, taking on the Jokić matchup and freeing up Rudy Gobert to roam off of Aaron Gordon. But Jokić had his way with anyone the Wolves put in front of him on Sunday night, resuming the form that earned him a third MVP award this season. He scored 35 points on 15-of-26 shooting. Gordon was even better, putting up 27 points on 11-of-12 shooting with seven rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots.

Towns was hardly the only Wolves player to struggle. Nickeil Alexander-Walker missed all four of his 3s (1 of 7 overall) and had a hard time impacting the game defensively like he did in Denver. Kyle Anderson only played 6 minutes, 11 seconds but the Wolves were outscored by 18 points in that time. Gobert had 11 points and 14 rebounds and certainly had his moments defensively, but he also turned the ball over five times and was burned by the Wolves’ decision to sag off of Gordon on offense.

Gordon is shooting 29 percent from 3-point range this season, but he buried both of his tries in Game 4 and was 3 of 4 in Denver’s win in Game 3.

“If Gordon turns into Kobe Bryant for stretches, we’ve got to be living with that,” Gobert said. “Those shots were contested, highly contested some of them. This is part of the game. We know that they’re a good team, we know that Murray, Jokić, Michael Porter, all these guys are going to hit tough shots at some point.”

The Nuggets put Gordon in more of a facilitator role to combat the ball pressure that the Wolves applied in such a suffocating fashion in Denver. It worked beautifully, getting the ball zipping around in the half court to turn the tables on the No. 1 defense in the league.

Justin Holiday hit three 3s, Christian Braun scored 11 points and Denver’s bench outscored Minnesota’s 27-13, taking away what was supposed to be a big advantage for the deeper Timberwolves. The Nuggets shot 57 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point land, turning the Wolves defense inside-out with their ball movement and timely shooting.

These are the Nuggets that bum-rushed the playoffs last season on their way to their first championship. These are the Nuggets who entered these playoffs as the favorites in the West. These are the Nuggets who were nowhere to be found against the Timberwolves in Denver.

They scored 20 points off of 11 turnovers by Minnesota, giving the less experienced Wolves a lesson in what happens when you make mistakes against a championship team. The game turned completely at the end of the first half. The Wolves had trimmed a 16-point deficit to seven with 20 seconds to go on a 3 from Edwards that got the crowd to its feet.

But Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a 3, his only make of the game and then Jokić got a steal and fed Porter for a dunk with 1.6 seconds to play. The backbreaker came when Alexander-Walker tried to heave the inbounds pass down the court to Jaden McDaniels. NAW overshot him, and it landed right in the hands of Murray, who launched a 55-foot heave that splashed through. It was an eight-point explosion in 20 seconds that gave the Nuggets a 64-49 lead at the break.

“These are inexcusable plays you can’t make right now,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “In general, offensively, in particular, we lost our composure a little bit. Just kind of rushing things up there. Chasing the ball. Seeing our structure collapse as a result.”

Now the Timberwolves’ margin for error has collapsed as well. They came home after two emphatic victories in the mountains hearing suggestions that a sweep was imminent and a run to the title not only possible but probable. They wanted so badly to give these long-suffering fans who packed Target Center a cause to celebrate, knowing that even a split would put them in a commanding position to make their first conference finals in 20 years.

Instead, the champion has awakened. Murray has resumed his position as one of the league’s best tough shotmakers. Jokić seems to have figured out the Wolves defense and Gordon is hitting everything in sight.

“I said it after Game 2, they’re not going to lay down,” Edwards said. “They’re going to punch and we’re going to punch back. They beat us up tonight. The last two nights, they beat us up in the fight. That’s OK. we’re going to be all right.”

Sometimes words like that can ring hollow, a player saying what needs to be said, but deep down believing something entirely different. That is not how it felt when Edwards was speaking. He has taken it to the Nuggets in three of the four games of this series. He knows they can win in Denver because they have already done it twice in these playoffs and once in the regular season.

Edwards believes Towns and Alexander-Walker will hit all of those open shots they missed in Game 4. He believes Naz Reid’s defense will hold up like it did in Games 1 and 2. He believes the Wolves will make Murray pay for puffing his chest out, much the way Murray and the Nuggets did when the Wolves were howling at the moon after Game 2. Edwards knew the series wasn’t over when the Wolves were up 2-0, and he knows the series is not over now that it is 2-2.

Edwards kept nodding his head as he stepped toward Murray at the end of Game 4, telling him to have his fun while he can. Now this best-of-seven series is down to a best of three.

The Timberwolves are trying to do something that they have not done in two decades, and they have to go through the defending champions to get there. This is supposed to be hard. That’s just the way Edwards likes it. That is why he smiled while he talked to Murray at the end of Game 4.

“He didn’t say anything back. But I’m pretty sure he heard me,” Edwards said. “They heard me. You live for that.”

(Photo of Jamal Murray and Anthony Edwards: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)