June 13, 2024

Nuggets’ title defense ends in stunning fashion against Wolves: ‘We had the opportunities’

DENVER — Moments after his staff misplaced at Ball Arena, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone took his seat on the podium and commenced to reply the query of why a Game 7 that began so promisingly ended in such jarring fashion.

While Malone spoke to the media, the cheers and the celebration from the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room adjoining to the Nuggets press room could possibly be heard. With each query got here a Malone reply, and with every answer came another cheer.

The Nuggets’ try at a second consecutive NBA title ended abruptly Sunday with a 98-90 loss to Minnesota to cap a traditional seven-game sequence in the Western Conference semifinals. The dwelling crowd, which was in celebration mode early in the third quarter, sat shocked at the finish as an eerie silence enveloped Ball Arena and Nuggets followers slowly resigned themselves to their staff’s destiny. At the closing buzzer, Timberwolves followers who made the 90-minute flight to Denver took over.

The Nuggets have been dominant in the first half. They opened their largest lead of the recreation, 58-38, at 10:50 in the third quarter when Jamal Murray hit an open 3-pointer from the quick nook. Yet the meltdown that occurred from that second was startling.

When you assume Denver Nuggets, you assume flawless execution on each ends of the flooring. You image Murray and three-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokić creating string music with pick-and-roll basketball. You consider an offense that finds the appropriate shot on each possession.

But in this sequence, the Timberwolves have been the Nuggets’ kryptonite. As a lot as successful the sequence, the Nuggets have been simply hoping to outlive it. If the Nuggets had superior, there might not have been one other staff on the horizon able to making the them as uncomfortable as the Timberwolves have been capable of over the final two weeks.

“I think if you play a team seven times and then you lose to them, then you have to say they are the better team,” Jokić mentioned. “I think they are built to beat us. They have basically two All-Stars. They have two All-Defensive first-team players, and they have Mike Conley. He’s probably the most underrated player in the NBA. I love the guy. He’s so good.”

The Nuggets’ finish was jarring as a result of they have been so near escaping. For seven video games, Denver had to take care of Minnesota’s size and athleticism, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns clogging the lane, the general brilliance of Anthony Edwards, Murray’s balky left calf, the Timberwolves’ perimeter defense hounding Murray and the Timberwolves’ depth off the bench.

The Nuggets, who have been down 2-0, received three consecutive video games and pushed the Timberwolves to the brink of elimination. Even with Thursday’s historic 115-70 loss in Game 6, the Nuggets entered Sunday with peak confidence. In what boiled right down to a one-game sequence, all the Nuggets had to do was beat the Wolves as soon as at Ball Arena. With their Game 7 loss, the Nuggets misplaced three of their 4 dwelling video games.

Denver’s 20-point lead at the begin of the third quarter dissipated to 67-66 when Edwards hit a stepback 3-pointer over Aaron Gordon to finish the quarter. Losing a 20-point benefit is dangerous sufficient. Losing it in lower than 11 minutes was a shock, one the Nuggets couldn’t overcome. The tone and momentum of Game 7s are often outlined by the extra skilled staff, however the Nuggets’ play in the second half seemed extra callow than completed.

“I thought we generated good looks, but we didn’t make enough shots,” Murray mentioned. “When you don’t get the seems you need and so they come again and rating, that’s powerful. We bought the pictures we needed and the alternatives have been there. They made that run in the second half, and we couldn’t recuperate.

“It’s tough, man. I’m just excited for next year. We had the opportunities tonight, and that’s the part that stings.”

In the finish, the Nuggets’ roster wasn’t deep sufficient. Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, who left in free company, offered veteran high quality depth throughout the 2023 championship run, By the finish of Game 7 Sunday, second-year ahead Christian Braun was the solely bench participant Malone trusted. Braun’s ability set is extra attuned on defense and in the open courtroom on offense, and the Nuggets lacked scoring punch exterior of their beginning lineup.

That proved to be deadly. Jokić performed 46-plus minutes, Murray 42-plus. In Game 7, Denver bought 5 factors from its bench, all from Braun. The Nuggets bought 21 factors from these not named Jokić or Murray, forcing these two to shoulder an excessive amount of of the offense. By the time the Nuggets wanted essential baskets, Jokić and Murray have been so fatigued that they couldn’t present them. They have been the solely Nuggets in double-figures. Minnesota had six gamers attain that mark, led by Jaden McDaniels and Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 23 apiece.

“We needed somebody else to give them some help,” Malone mentioned. “Nikola had 34 points and Jamal had 35 points. But we couldn’t make shots. The theme in our four losses is that we haven’t been able to score, and I thought that held true tonight.”

The Nuggets have been an ideal staff final season and have been nonetheless an ideal staff this yr, however additionally they noticed the remainder of the league get higher, and in the Timberwolves’ case, more healthy. Last spring when the Nuggets beat them in 5 video games, the Timberwolves have been with out Naz Reid and McDaniels. This yr, with no Brown or Green, however with Reid, the 2024 Sixth Man of the Year, and McDaniels in the combine, the Timberwolves have been capable of flip the consequence.

By the finish of the night time, the shock amongst the Nuggets was palpable. Malone briefly choked up by the finish of his media session. Murray paused earlier than lots of his responses. Now, Denver enters an offseason with many inquiries to reply.

“It’s hard because teams are hungry and more talented than last year,” Jokić mentioned. “Everybody got better, and everybody wanted to beat us.”

(Photo of Nikola Jokić: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post through Getty Images)