May 25, 2024

Timberwolves’ Game 2 defense thrusts them into NBA championship conversation

DENVER — The championship-stamped point guard, the one Anthony Edwards called the best closer in the game after he watched Jamal Murray twice cut the hearts out of the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, is weakened. The kinesio tape and sleeve on his right leg are doing their best to hold together an aching calf that has taken some of the burst out of his first step.

Some would see nobility in Murray’s insistence on playing through the injury, admiring his toughness and marveling at his importance to the Denver Nuggets. There is nothing sentimental about the Minnesota Timberwolves defense. To them, that sleeve is a sign of vulnerability, an opportunity to sink their teeth into the defending champs. Murray is too wounded prey to these Wolves, and early in the decisive second quarter of Game 2 on Monday night, he had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

“It’s been our identity all year, a little bit like we smell blood in the water and things kind of accelerate,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said.

With Minnesota’s lead already 33-20 and the jaws starting to lock, Murray grabbed a defensive rebound and turned to shift into offense mode. Nickeil Alexander-Walker got right into his grill before he took his first dribble, riding Murray’s left hip up the court.

As he approached the midcourt line, the pack started to assemble. Jaden McDaniels left his man and Alexander-Walker was able to force Murray to stumble as he tried to advance the ball. With his back to the Nuggets basket, and the rest of his teammates out of his line of vision, McDaniels pounced on him.

Alexander-Walker could have peeled off to cover one of the other Nuggets players to make sure they didn’t lose anybody on the fifth-ranked offense in the league. But Alexander-Walker could see that Murray was compromised, so he joined McDaniels on the hunt. Two of the best perimeter defenders in the league engulfed Murray, who writhed frenetically looking for an escape route.

“He’s in a straitjacket!” TNT announcer Kevin Harlan said as he described the entanglement.

Murray was able to get rid of the ball, and he flailed his arms looking for a foul call to save him, but the whistle never came. It only got more difficult from there on a possession that ended with Peyton Watson shooting a corner 3-pointer off the side of the backboard for a shot clock violation.

The scene looked better suited for National Geographic than TNT, a relentless devouring of an imperiled opponent. At that moment, Murray wasn’t the crunchtime killer that he had been for so long in Denver. He wasn’t one-half of the best two-man game in the league with Nikola Jokić. He could barely get the ball over half court.

“Me and Jaden are trying to swarm him, make it difficult on him, and it was during a time when we were making a run, and you’re just losing yourself in it, and it was just fun,” Alexander-Walker said.

It served as both a microcosm of the season for a Timberwolves team that is making defense relevant again in a league that has been intoxicated by offense over the last decade, and a reckoning for the favored Nuggets. It also set the tone for a 106-80 victory that gave the Timberwolves a 2-0 lead in the series, both victories coming in Denver, where the Nuggets went 33-8 in the regular season.

The Nuggets finished the regular season with the fifth-best offensive rating in the league and were held under 90 points three times. They have averaged 89.5 points per game in the first two games of this series. In Game 2, they made just 35 percent of their shots, turned the ball over 19 times and committed three shot-clock violations, unfathomable for what had been the most cohesive starting five in the league.

“They punked us,” Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson said. “They literally just manhandled us.”

The Timberwolves blocked 12 shots, had 11 steals and forced Murray into a 3 of 18 night while holding MVP favorite Nikola Jokić to 16 points on 13 shots. Denver shot 38 percent in the paint with the Timberwolves treating each shot attempt at the rim as a personal insult.

And they did it all without the best defensive player on their team. Rudy Gobert missed the game to be with his fiancée, who gave birth to the couple’s first child on Monday morning in the Twin Cities. There was some discussion about Gobert flying back to Denver for the game, but high winds in the region resulted in flight delays for incoming planes, which complicated those travel plans.

The absence figured to open the door for the proud Nuggets after a 106-99 loss on their home floor in Game 1. Surely, Jokić would feast on the Wolves defense without the presumptive NBA Defensive Player of the Year there to gobble up rebounds and deter would-be penetrators.

The Wolves did not shrug their shoulders and show up to Ball Arena happy with their Game 1 win. The built-in excuse for a loss was right there to be used. Instead, missing Gobert only seemed to heighten their focus and energy. This was a chance for them to show that this defense is about more than just one person, even if that person is the best defender in the world. This was a chance to announce themselves as legitimate championship contenders.

“Rudy’s driven the defensive culture here,” Finch said. “I think it’s a testament to his impact, his presence and what he’s infused into the team, how important defense is and how great we can be when we play it.”

When the Wolves showed up to training camp in the fall, they had a meeting to discuss what type of team they wanted to be. They were coming off of a disappointing season in which they lost to these Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, ending an underwhelming first year for Gobert in Minnesota. It was in that meeting that Finch preached the importance of defense. That is where the elite talent was on this roster with Gobert, Edwards, Alexander-Walker and McDaniels leading the way.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Reid had become known much more for their offense in recent seasons, so a defensive declaration could have been viewed as going against what they do best. But both players have committed to that end of the floor, giving everything they have to hold up their ends of the bargain on a team filled with stoppers.

Reid has done much of his defensive damage on the perimeter this season, guarding smaller players in pick-and-roll and other actions that would be challenging for most 6-foot-9, 260-pound bigs. But he has embraced his role, working all summer to quicken his feet and crystalize his understanding of the team’s defensive principles. All of that work paid off in Game 2 when he blocked four shots, including getting Jokić twice in one possession.

“Definitely had to train my mindset to be defense first,” Reid said. “My offensive game is what it is. But our identity is defense, and I have to take that sacrifice and become a defensive player.”

Towns was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2015 based partly on his versatile offensive skill set, but also because it was believed he could be an impact player on the defensive end.

In the first eight seasons of his career, Towns was known much more as an offensive player. This season he has been more attentive, more instinctual and more disciplined, though foul trouble remains an issue.

He battled Jokić admirably all game long, also making him have to work when he was on defense. Towns scored 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting to go with a team-leading 12 rebounds.

But it was his defense on Jokić that made all the difference. Towns used his size and strength to body Jokić, making it tough for him to get to his spots. He committed four fouls but was never in real foul trouble, something Edwards has been harping on him about in the playoffs.

“I always thought he was a great defensive player,” Edwards said, sitting next to his buddy KAT in the postgame news conference. “He just had to put his mind to it. When Finchy got here, man, Finchy put the emphasis on, ‘Hey, Ant and KAT, if we wanna go somewhere, we gotta defend.’ ”

The Timberwolves have gradually understood how their coach’s prodding was the right way to go, and it has never been more clear than in their first trip to the second round in 20 years. They took the Nuggets apart piece by piece on Monday night.

In the first quarter, when they knew that the officiating crew was going to let them play, Towns ran right through Murray’s chest for a bucket and Edwards followed by blasting through Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for another score, leaving his Georgia buddy crumpled under the basket. That prompted coach Michael Malone to jump crew chief Marc Davis, unleashing a profanity-soaked tirade that somehow did not draw a technical foul.

In the second quarter, after NAW and McDaniels swarmed Murray into submission. The frustration prompted Murray to throw a heat pack onto the court while he was on the bench later in the period, a transgression that could earn him significant discipline for Game 3.

In the third quarter, Aaron Gordon picked up a technical foul after stalking referee David Guthrie throughout a timeout. Not once this season have the Nuggets looked this out of sorts. Injuries may be playing a role, but the Wolves carry themselves as a team that knows its opponent is cooked.

Through two games, the Nuggets have had no answer for Edwards, who had 27 points and seven assists in Game 2. Caldwell-Pope is too small for him, and Gordon is not quick enough to stay in front of him.

Edwards started these playoffs saying he wanted to “kill everything in front of me, man.” He started this series by saying that he viewed Caldwell-Pope, another former Georgia Bulldogs player, as a big brother, but said he was already trying to “tear his head off.” His teammates have adopted that edge.

Finch always warns the Wolves that their playoff opponents will come back after losses with a vengeance and that Minnesota cannot lose sight of the fact that it needs four wins to advance. He always tells them to be ready for the first punch.

“I say, ‘We gonna punch, too,’ ” Edwards said. “S—, they not the only one punchin’ in the fight.”

They are doing things a new way, with toughness and defense in a league geared toward points and shooting. It’s enough to stoke the fires in the icon of all icons in Wolves lore.

The Wolves built a 32-point lead, stunning the Ball Arena crowd. It was essentially over in the second quarter, a 33-15 wipeout that put the Wolves up by 26 points at halftime. The quarter started with NAW and McDaniels hounding Murray and ended with Mike Conley stripping Michael Porter Jr. on a drive to the basket, then flinging a lob pass down the court to a streaking Edwards for a dunk.

Immediately after the pass, Conley was in celebration mode. He knew the Wolves had the Nuggets dead to rights and turned to let his teammates know about it.

“I turned around and started yelling before he even dunked it,” Conley said. “I think the bench felt that energy. That’s just who we have to be. I’m proud of us doing that tonight.”

The series shifts to Minnesota for Game 3 on Friday night. The arena will be sold out, just as it has been all season. They’re all coming to watch the Minnesota Timberwolves play defense.

(Photo of Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jamal Murray: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)