June 14, 2024

NBA playoffs 2024 – Inside the ‘wild’ chess match between the Nuggets and Timberwolves


Two video games into the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals, the Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t simply beating the defending champs — they had been throttling them.

The Wolves’ protection, ranked No. 1 in the league throughout the common season, went from impenetrable in Game 1 to downright preposterous in Game 2 in opposition to the Denver Nuggets. And regardless of lacking 4-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who was away from the staff for the delivery of his first youngster, Minnesota’s swarming defenders solely appeared to multiply.

“I heard someone say it was like seven Timberwolves on the court,” Minnesota ahead Jaden McDaniels advised ESPN earlier in the collection. “It really feels like that when you are playing defense [with this team].”

After profitable Game 1 on the street, the Wolves harassed Nuggets guard Jamal Murray right into a 1-for-10 exhibiting, restricted middle Nikola Jokic to eight factors, pressured the three-time MVP into 4 turnovers and held Denver to 32.6% taking pictures en path to a 26-level lead by halftime of Game 2.

It wasn’t simply correct recognition and defensive rotations, both. There was a sure type to Minnesota’s suffocating schemes.

A clip of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Wolves’ rangy, 6-foot-5 guard, selecting up Murray full courtroom went viral and featured Alexander-Walker flashing an almost maniacal smile in Murray’s face after absorbing a bump to the physique when Murray tried to free himself at the middle circle. “I was just so lost in the flow of it,” Alexander-Walker mentioned after Game 2.

Minnesota’s on-ball stress ramped up much more when Alexander-Walker was joined by McDaniels. The duo’s double-groups pestered Murray to the level the place the usually regular guard needed to eliminate the ball or danger a turnover.

The Wolves, two video games into their first convention semifinal look in 20 years, had been the toast of the league.

The 22-12 months-outdated Anthony Edwards heard comparisons to Michael Jordan for scoring 70 factors via the Wolves’ 2-0 begin. The 23-12 months-outdated McDaniels, whom Minnesota coach Chris Finch typically refers to as “Scottie Pippen” and who advised ESPN, “It seems like my limbs keep growing [and] sometimes it’s hard to even control my arms because they’re so long,” was being heralded as a prototypical defensive stopper.

But simply 10 days later, the Wolves have misplaced three straight video games for the first time all season and are on the brink of elimination heading into Thursday’s Game 6 at house (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). With two should-win video games forward to avoid wasting one in every of the franchise’s most profitable seasons, how did Minnesota go from world-beaters to the brink of elimination?

By falling dangerously behind in one in every of this postseason’s most intriguing chess matches.


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1:25

Windhorst on Jokic: ‘We are seeing an absolute grasp at work’

Brian Windhorst explains why the Timberwolves had been helpless in opposition to Nikola Jokic in Game 5.

The Nuggets modified how they use Murray

The schedule allowed a uncommon three-day break as the collection shifted from Denver to Minneapolis for Game 3. While the Wolves awaited a suspension that by no means got here, with Murray being fined $100,000 for tossing a towel and heating pad onto the courtroom in frustration in the midst of Minnesota’s 106-80 Game 2 win, the time without work proved helpful in a number of methods for the Nuggets.

Murray, who was coping with a strained left calf he suffered in the first spherical in opposition to the Los Angeles Lakers, had a chance to relaxation. Denver coach Michael Malone, in the meantime, had a chance to regulate.

Malone dug into movie from the first two video games of the collection, looking for a option to get Murray trying extra like the participant who constructed a fame as one in every of the league’s premier playoff performers.

Malone discovered it — by taking the ball out of his level guard’s arms, and having both Jokic or ahead Aaron Gordon provoke the offense. Gordon, for his half, introduced up the ball for 15 possessions in Game 3 after doing so simply 17 occasions in Games 1 and 2.

The additional touches continued Gordon’s offensive groove. After scoring 20 factors on 57.1% taking pictures in Game 2, he averaged 19.7 factors on 69.7% in the subsequent three Nuggets wins.

Not solely did the Gordon activation save Murray from being pressured for 94 ft, it prevented the 7-1 Gobert from stationing himself off the ball as a roaming rim-protector. And after scoring simply eight factors on 3-for-18 taking pictures in Game 2, Murray scored 24 on 11-for-21 taking pictures in Game 3 as the Nuggets blew out the Wolves on their house ground.

“How Jamal goes, we go,” a Nuggets supply advised ESPN after Game 3. “Very simple.”

Murray saved getting in Games 4 and 5, averaging 17.5 factors on 48.4% taking pictures and six assists in two extra wins to place the Nuggets up 3-2.

Denver exploited the tactic even additional in Games 4 and 5. In every of these video games, Gobert defended the participant who introduced up the ball on 18 possessions, in response to Second Spectrum monitoring information, tied for his third most in a sport over his 11-12 months profession.


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0:26

Ant Edwards after Jokic’s dominant Game 5: ‘I simply snort’

Anthony Edwards offers props to Nikola Jokic for being the greatest participant on the courtroom with a double-double in Game 5.

The MVP cooked the Defensive Player of the Year — by being even slower

After dropping two video games at house, the Nuggets returned the favor by profitable Games 3 and 4 inside Minnesota’s Target Center. But Edwards made them sweat for it.

He scored 44 factors in Game 4, hitting the 40-level plateau for the third time this postseason. If not for an 8-0 Denver run in the closing 20 seconds of the second quarter or Karl-Anthony Towns taking pictures 1-for-10 in the first half en path to a 5-for-18 evening, Minnesota might very nicely have been the staff trying to win the collection Thursday.

Game 5 belonged solely to Jokic. And the Nuggets middle delivered a efficiency worthy of the MVP trophy he obtained from NBA commissioner Adam Silver earlier than the sport.

After the Wolves held Jokic comparatively in examine in Games 1 and 2 — he averaged 24 factors, 12 rebounds and 8.5 assists however shot 42.1% from the discipline, 20% from 3 with 5.5 turnovers — McDaniels was nonetheless cautious of the power they had been reckoning with.

“Just him walking on the court makes our antennas go up,” McDaniels advised ESPN previous to Game 3. “Just for this series, when [Jokic] gets the ball, we try to go get to our man because we know how good of a passer he is.

“He might rating, too. We’ll fairly let him rating, actually. Just as a result of, everybody else getting concerned? It’s over, man.”

Jokic did both in Game 5, scoring 40 points on 15-for-22 shooting and dishing out 13 assists with zero turnovers. He did it by going right at Gobert. After shooting just 11-for-28 (39.3%) with Gobert as his primary defender through the first four games of the series, Jokic shot 8-for-9 against him (88.9%), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“I’m simply making an attempt to learn and be aggressive,” Jokic said after Tuesday’s win. “Today was a very good evening for me.”

It was a methodical evening, too. While Jokic historically is fast to make his offensive transfer — taking a mean of 1.44 dribbles per discipline aim try in the common season, rating forty sixth amongst 52 gamers with 1,000 or extra photographs, in response to Second Spectrum — he pounded the ball far more in Game 5.

In 14 touches for Jokic that started in the half courtroom with Gobert on him, Jokic averaged 2.36 dribbles per contact for a mean contact size of 5.0 seconds. It was the longest common contact size and most dribbles per contact Jokic has ever had in opposition to one defender in his 9-12 months profession, common season or playoffs (amongst video games with a minimal of 10 direct touches in opposition to a single defender). For Denver, it was one more option to restrict Gobert from taking part in his most well-liked roamer function on the backline.

“We know he’s a 1-of-1 kind of player. We know he’s going to make some incredible plays,” Gobert mentioned of Jokic after Game 5. “But we got to keep at it. We got to keep making it tough on him. … we got to keep playing and going right back at him.”


Ant-Man is lacking his backcourt sidekick

The one factor the Wolves might rely on all through the collection — Edwards’ excellence — took successful in Game 5.

With veteran guard Mike Conley sidelined with a sore proper Achilles, the Nuggets harassed Edwards throughout the courtroom the means the Wolves wings did to Murray to begin the collection. (Conley was “50-50” to play in Game 5 earlier than being dominated out and there’s nonetheless hope he’ll play in Game 6, a Timberwolves supply advised ESPN.)

Without Conley to share the ballhandling duties Tuesday, Edwards managed the motion greater than he had all season. His 102 touches tied for the second most he is had in a sport in his complete profession, together with common season and playoffs, in response to Second Spectrum.

And the Nuggets saved sending our bodies at him. The 29 double-groups Edwards confronted in Game 5 had been greater than he confronted in the first 4 video games of the collection mixed.

“This was crazy,” Edwards mentioned of the additional defensive consideration after ending with 18 factors on 5-for-15 taking pictures. “Today was crazy, for sure. Yeah, today was wild.”

Which is an acceptable phrase to explain the collection as an entire. Wild anticipation. Wild performances. Wild swings. And wildly profitable changes by the defending champs in opposition to a Wolves staff now tasked with making its personal.



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