Timberwolves-Nuggets series opener shows Minnesota was built to stop Jokić

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DENVER — The silence was surreal.

One by one, just seconds after young Anthony Edwards and his mighty Minnesota Timberwolves finished their 106-99 win over Denver in Game 1 of the West semifinals on Saturday night, the stunned Nuggets made their way off the Ball Arena floor with nary a sound between them. Michael Porter Jr. was first, followed by Aaron Gordon, then Nikola Jokić, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jamal Murray. Dozens of other players and staffers followed, but no words were exchanged between them.

No messages of encouragement. No shouts of frustration. Nothing. From the tunnel where they all celebrated a title for the first time in franchise history last June, they turned right into the home locker room where the Larry O’Brien trophy is on display inside that glass case with the white-hot spotlight.

If this is how these Timberwolves are going to go about this grudge match, punishing Jokić with their parade of versatile big men while unleashing Edwards in the kind of way that has him headed for the history books, then the defending champs won’t be adding any more hardware to the hallway anytime soon. It was only one game, but this version of the T-Wolves is good enough to win the whole damn thing. And what a tale that would be for Tim Connelly to tell.

When the architect of this Nuggets roster took the job as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations in May of 2022, his first order of business was to find a way to contend with the Serbian superstar who had won his second consecutive MVP award just 12 days before Connelly officially left Denver. Edwards’ talent was already jumping off the screen by then, so Connelly went to work finding ways to complement the young phenom with a dynamic rim protector who would serve as the foundation of their defense.

The 47-year-old has a habit of downplaying this storyline in media circles, insisting that his choice to give up the farm for Rudy Gobert less than two months into his Timberwolves tenure was more holistic and complicated than any sort of anti-Jokić agenda. Fine. But everyone around Connelly is far more willing to acknowledge the obvious when it comes to this subplot, that he prioritized Gobert, Naz Reid (three-year, $42 million deal signed last summer) and Karl-Anthony Towns (by resisting the urge to trade him for massive luxury tax savings) as part of a go-big-or-go-home plan that was put into place with Jokić and the Nuggets in mind.

It’s one thing to concoct this sort of strategy in the boardroom, though, and quite another to see it play out on basketball’s biggest stage like this. And while it didn’t work in their first-round playoff meeting last year, when the Timberwolves fell in five games to Denver and were down 3-0 before finally taking a game, they’re off to a far more fascinating start this time around.

As Jokić discussed afterward, the trio of Gobert, Reid and Towns present the kind of unique challenge that is capable of leaving him weary and worn. If it’s not Gobert meeting him at the rim, it’s Reid and Towns pulling him out to the 3-point line where they pose a serious threat (41.6 percent and 41.4 percent from 3-point range this season, respectively). The only real answer to this problem, Jokić quipped, is to somehow find a way to add a carbon copy of himself in time for Game 2 on Monday.

“Duplicate a clone of myself, and then I can be fresh when they sub another guy,” said Jokić , who had 32 points, nine assists and eight rebounds but who was just 11-of-25 from the field and had seven turnovers. “I don’t know. I think that’s why they’re good. They can play big. They can play small. …They’re long, physical. They rebound really well. They’re aggressive. I’m satisfied with the shots that I took. Some of them I missed. Some of them I made. So it’s a tough game, and they’re a really good defensive team.”

It’s that last part that makes this matchup such an uphill climb for Denver. While the Timberwolves’ No. 1 defense is the most tried and true aspect of their identity, the Nuggets were ranked eighth on that end of the floor. The difference, for Denver and the rest of the league, is that Minnesota has a generational defender in Gobert who has finally proven to be worth every penny (and draft pick) of that controversial deal with Utah.

Gobert finished with six points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and a plus-12 rating that trailed only Mike Conley (plus-20), but it was his late fourth-quarter block of a Jokić alley-oop attempt that offered the best reminder of his value. Having just finished a putback that gave Minnesota a five-point lead with 3:16 left, Gobert manned the paint while Jokić took a pass from Murray at the free throw line and immediately flipped it to a soaring Gordon.

On most nights, the high-flying Gordon finishes that play and sparks an electric reaction from the Nuggets faithful. Only this time, Gobert timed his jump perfectly and swatted Jokić’s lob away with his left hand and sparked a break the other way for Edwards.

The Timberwolves guard was fouled while attacking the rim, hit the subsequent two free throws for a seven-point lead, then saw it swell to nine points when Gobert buried a midrange bank shot on the next possession. For all the fireworks that unfolded during that stretch, though, it was Jokić’s inability to complete a crucial closing play that stood out the most. And Gobert, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year who may be on the verge of his fourth such honor, was well aware of the deeper meaning of it all.

“I mean, to me, he’s the best player in the world,” Gobert told The Athletic about Jokić, who was taken 41st overall in the 2014 draft by Connelly during his nine-year stretch heading the Nuggets’ front office. “He’s soon to be a three-time MVP for a reason, but I think my abilities are unique in the way I can impact the basketball game. That’s why I’m really grateful for Tim Connelly and all these guys for believing in me, bringing me in this situation to help this team become a championship team and be a top defense. That’s who I try to be every day.

“I live for this. This is what I always dream about. I live for these moments. I work every day for these moments, so now I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

Make no mistake, the series opener was about Edwards above all else. His first six minutes were spectacular, as he scored 11 of his 43 points during Minnesota’s 18-4 start while hounding the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray (17 points; a minus-22 rating) as he struggled to play through the calf injury that is clearly still a problem. Edwards’ closing quarter (12 points; four of five shooting) was nearly as good — no play more so than the Michael Jordan-esque spinning fadeaway that he buried over Caldwell-Pope to put the Timberwolves up 11.

“I mean I lost to these guys last year, and they are the defending champs,” Edwards said. “They’re a hard team to beat, a great team (with) great players. They’ve got the best player in the league with Nikola Jokić. To me, they’ve got the best closer with Jamal Murray, best three-point shooter with Michael Porter Jr. So it’s tough to beat this team.

“It’s not just my mentality — it’s the team mentality. We come in, and you know it’s gonna be a war. We just play within the game, and just stay within the game. They make runs. We’ve got to make our runs. It’s a fight. It’s gonna be a fight.”

Yet even beyond all the shared history with the Nuggets, these Timberwolves have been as impressive as any team left so far in this postseason. They handled the Phoenix Suns in their first-round sweep, with Edwards outplaying the likes of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. And now, with Connelly’s scheme to slow Jokić showing so much early series promise, it’s on the Nuggets to decide if they’re going to make any noise.

(Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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