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Nuggets need Jokic in superhero mode to advance past Ant Man, the Timberwolves

DENVER — It may not have the sexy, big market appeal of a Warriors vs. Lakers series, but for those of us who actually appreciate watching good basketball more than big names, Timberwolves vs. Nuggets in the NBA postseason is about as good as it gets.

When they last met on April 10, the game took on the tenor of a playoff contest. Denver was hell-bent on acquiring the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and Minnesota was desperate to not get pushed around like a little brother. In the end, the Nuggets won the battle 116-107 on the back of Nikola Jokic’s 20th 40-plus-point game of his career.

Now, it’s time to see who will win the war.

Nuggets take on the Timberwolves on Saturday

“We know what to expect, they know what to expect,” said Jamal Murray, who shrugged off questions about his left calf strain. “They play fast and hard, they’re into you. And it’s always a physical game when we play against them. It’s basically just who can go out there and give better energy and make the least amount of mistakes.

No matter how you slice it, Minnesota’s defense is suffocating. Pick a statistic — any statistic — and it’ll tell you they have the definitive best defense in the NBA this season. That includes immense height courtesy of dual seven-footers Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.

Lakers Nuggets Basketball

David Zalubowski/AP

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) in the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Monday, April 29, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“Rudy Gobert is going to be regarded as one of the best defenders of his generation,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone shortly after Jokic cooked Gobert to the tune of 41 points and 11 rebounds on 16-of-20 shooting in that early April encounter. “It just speaks to how great Nikola is. I don’t think anybody in the NBA can guard Nikola 1-on-1.”

That’s where most of this series — nay, these playoffs — hinge: Denver has Nikola Jokic. Nobody else does.

Let Jokic cook

The Joker is averaging 28.2 points per game after the series against L.A., which is good enough for 7th in the NBA postseason.

“L.A. chose to double team Nikola the entirety of the series,” said Malone. “Now this will be a different series. We’ll see how they guard. If they want to put two on the ball, we’ll continue to get wide-open looks. And I have all the confidence in the world our guys will step in and shoot it with confidence.”

I appreciate Malone’s confidence, and I tend to agree with him. But riding the brilliance of the best player in basketball must also be paramount in this series.

Jokic leads the playoffs in rebounds per game and assists per game at 16.2 and 9.8 respectively. He’s also shooting 59% from the field — a tick higher than his regular season average.

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David Zalubowski/AP

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Monday, April 29, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

So let’s start right there. Jokic enters this second-round series playing about as well as he’s played all year — a year in which he’s destined to win his 3rd MVP award.

What you just heard was a collective sigh of exasperation from everyone in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, because they know that even on a totally random, average day, Nikola Jokic absolutely cooks the Timberwolves.

This season, Jokic is averaging 33.3 points per game in the four contests they’ve played against Minny. The only team he averaged more against was 33.5 per game in four vs. San Antonio (asserting dominance against young phenom Victor Wembanyama?).

Over the course of his career, Jokic has played more minutes against Minnesota than against any other team, which stands to reason he’d score a lot of points against them. The T-Wolves are, in fact, his second-highest point victim. Guess who’s number 1? (I won’t make you guess, it’s San Antonio, again.)

If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of this match-up, look no further than Jokic’s rampant success when facing Rudy Gobert. I don’t know what overall diplomatic relations are like between Serbia and France, but I know when Jokic lines up against Gobert, there is no negotiating. It’s one-way traffic.

Denver Nuggets

Here is the schedule for the Nuggets’ second-round series vs. the Timberwolves

11:32 AM, Apr 30, 2024

In the last four seasons, when Jokic plays a normal amount of minutes, he scores no less than 24 points against Gobert, including four 30-plus point games and two 40-plus point performances. Just using a raw average, Jokic ends up scoring 21 points per game along with 10 rebounds when facing the big Frenchman.

On the flip side, Gobert historically struggles against Jokic in the playoffs and especially when facing Jokic in the playoffs. During his time in Utah, it became common NBA lore that during the playoffs, teams would find a way to play Gobert off the floor. That’s the primary reason those admittedly talented Jazz teams never amounted to much. It’s also why most league experts were driven mad by Tim Connelly’s decision to bring Gobert to Minnesota and link him with the Big KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns).

Timberwolves Suns Basketball

Ross D. Franklin/AP

Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert drives to the basket against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, April 28, 2024, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“I truly believe that he’s been the best player in this league for the last three years,” said Gobert. “It’s about us making him work and being able to adapt and compete at the highest level.”

Saying that one of the keys to this series for Denver is riding Nikola Jokic should probably get my sports take credentials revoked, but sometimes the most obvious answer is also the most true.

More specifically, Jokic will need to score at a high level in this series. How’s that for a hot take? Despite the rockstar emergence of Michael Porter Jr. during round one against Los Angeles and the late-game heroics of Playoff Jamal, we need to see Jokic fight his natural urge to facilitate and assert his dominance.

Shrink the Ant Man

Anthony Edwards is having a moment, and if the Nuggets aren’t careful, they’ll become a footnote in the ascension of the next great NBA star.

During their four-game sweep of the Suns, Edwards averaged 31 points on 51% shooting, all the while laughing in Kevin Durant’s face and getting under the skin of the entire city of Phoenix.

That’s the thing about Edwards, it’s not so much the fact that he looks like a modern-day MJ or shoots with a Steph-like confidence or even that he plays defense in the vein of Tony Allen (albeit not in Timberland work boots), it’s that he will do all of those things and tell you about it before, during, and after embarrassing you.

“Ant is a menace,” said Murray, perfectly encapsulating Edwards’ aura.

Timberwolves Suns Basketball

Ross D. Franklin/AP

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) dribbles past Phoenix Suns guard Eric Gordon, left, during the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, April 28, 2024, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In their four regular season meetings, Edwards averaged 26 points per game against Denver. But he’s clearly elevating his game under the bright lights of the postseason.

Last year, in his first-ever playoff series, Edwards averaged nearly 32 points per game against Denver, including two 30-plus point performances and one 41-point, 60.9 percent shooting masterclass (and one thrown chair, but we don’t need to get into that).

Fast forward to Minnesota’s first-round sweep of the Suns in this postseason, Edwards averaged 10 points per game in the fourth quarter alone. But Denver did a good job at limiting his clutch impact during their regular season matchups. In two of the four games, they held Edwards scoreless in the final frame.

“[He’s a] hell of a player,” said Malone. “He’s going to make tough shots. He can get to the basket, he can finish, he gets to the foul line. And he knocks down that three-point shot with great accuracy. It’s a hell of a challenge.”

Malone believes switching up defensive looks and prioritizing getting back on defense will help to corral one of the NBA’s wild mustangs. In transition, Edwards averages five points per game all by himself.

The key to this match-up — and perhaps the series at large — will be forcing the Ant Man to scrape and claw for every bucket he will, inevitably, earn.

“We just have to make it tough for him,” said Murray. “The biggest thing is to not give him anything easy. We know that great scorers are going to score. Every series, you see someone who can score. It’s just like limiting the easy ones and making him have to work for it.”

Game 1 is Saturday at Ball Arena.

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