The Western Conference’s first-seeded Denver Nuggets and eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves meet in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. The two teams last met in the playoffs in the 2004 first round.
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How they got here
Denver Nuggets (53-29)
The Nuggets returned Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. from injury, making them whole for the first time since the former tore his left ACL in April 2021. Denver looked like a serious championship contender then, but Nikola Jokić could carry his team no further than the Western Conference semifinals without Murray. He led the Nuggets to 48 wins and flamed out in the first round of the playoffs without his two best teammates.
Flanked by a full roster, including the offseason additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (via trade), Bruce Brown (in free agency) and Christian Braun (with the No. 22 overall pick in the draft), and armed with the NBA's last two regular season MVP awards, Jokić had the Nuggets in first place on Christmas. Murray and Porter had not even hit their stride, but Aaron Gordon was playing at a borderline All-Star level, and the rest of the rotation made as much sense as any in the league. The team was built to maximize Jokić's brilliance.
And Jokić delivered. A nine-game winning streak in January and another push to the All-Star break gave the Nuggets a 33-13 record and a cushion over everyone but the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 1 seed. He was averaging a 25-12-10 triple-double on 63/39/82 shooting splits, absurd numbers for a slow-footed center, and remained the odds-on favorite to join Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as a three-peat MVP.
The MVP discussion turned toxic, just as Jokić and the Nuggets floundered for the last month of the regular season. The corollary is a question. They lost 11 of their final 17 games, five of which Jokić rested, and still secured first place, owners of a top-five offense and middling defense. They are vulnerable, if only because we have not seen them at their best for some time, but their best is as formidable as anyone in the West.
Minnesota Timberwolves (42-40)
The Timberwolves completed one of the most shocking (and arguably worst) trades in NBA history this past summer, dealing the rights to six first-round draft picks and three rotation players from a 46-win playoff team for 30-year-old defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert. The 7-foot-1 rim protector was freshly removed from the latest in his string of playoff disappointments, each of which exposed the limits to his defensive impact.
It was immediately apparent that the pairing of Gobert and two-time All-NBA stretch big man Karl-Anthony Towns was as challenging as most folks outside the Minnesota front office expected. Towns at center was the Wolves' greatest mismatch. They started 10-11, owners of the 15th-rated defense and a worse offense at the end of November, when Towns suffered a calf strain that would sideline him for nearly four months.
In the absence of their 27-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick, the Wolves forged an identity behind more recent No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards, who made his first All-Star appearance at age 21. Edwards, Gobert, veteran wing Kyle Anderson and rapidly improving 3-and-D forward Jaden McDaniels could anchor defenses that performed at a league-best level, even if the team's overall performance remained average.
Minnesota invested in that identity, trading D'Angelo Russell for 35-year-old one-time All-Defensive guard Mike Conley and long-armed guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who added depth to a shallow rotation. Then, Towns returned, backup center Naz Reid suffered a broken wrist, and the Wolves required another reset.
Towns played brilliantly in victory against the New Orleans Pelicans in the regular season finale, securing Minnesota two chances to emerge from the West play-in tournament. The win also came with controversy. Gobert threw a punch at Anderson during a timeout, exposing a chemistry failure, and McDaniels broke his right hand punching a wall in frustration over foul trouble. The Wolves suspended Gobert for the play-in opener, and a Towns-led contingent wilted down the stretch of a loss to LeBron James and Co.
Minnesota responded with a complete effort in Gobert's return, defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder by 25 points on Friday to clinch the No. 8 seed. Six Wolves scored in double figures, led by a combined 68 points, 31 rebounds and 11 assists from Towns, Gobert and Edwards. Minnesota has a ton of talent. Whether it blends against a more formidable playoff opponent is another matter, especially without McDaniels or Reid.
Head to head
The Nuggets and Timberwolves tied their regular season series, 2-2.
All four games occurred between Jan. 2 and Feb. 7, before the Wolves dealt Russell for Conley. Towns also missed the entire regular season series to injury. Denver was on the second night of a back-to-back in their first three meetings. Undermanned Minnesota dealt the initial blow, beating Denver by double digits. Jokić dominated two of the next three matchups — first in the absence of Gobert and next without Murray at his side — and the Nuggets rested every starter but Porter in a blowout loss to the Timberwolves in between.
Minnesota can hang its hat on this stat: Without Towns or Conley ever in the lineup, the Wolves outscored Denver by 2 points in the 38 minutes Jokić and Murray shared the court against them this season.
The Nuggets will play Jokić, Gordon, Caldwell-Pope, Murray and either Porter or Brown for offensive and defensive purposes, respectively. Both groups have played only about 90 minutes together in the fourth quarter this season. Porter boosts that unit by nearly five points per 100 possessions on the offensive end, but Denver is being outscored by a slim margin in those fourth-quarter minutes — a far cry from its +13.1 net rating in all quarters this season. The defensive versatility improves significantly with Brown in place of Porter, and that has translated into a fourth-quarter advantage for them of 6.6 points per 100 possessions.
With McDaniels sidelined, the Wolves have a question mark for the fifth spot in a closing lineup that should include Towns, Edwards, Conley and Anderson. When Gobert was suspended for the play-in game against the Lakers, Minnesota closed with Taurean Prince in a small-ball lineup that scored just two baskets in eight minutes of defeat in the fourth quarter. That group played only 23 minutes together in the regular season.
Swap Gobert in for Prince in that closing lineup, and the Wolves have had more positive results in equally limited minutes. Minnesota's net rating in 529 minutes with Gobert and Towns paired is negligible, but Jokić is one of the few traditional centers against whom the Timberwolves might be able to get away with both.
Matchup to watch
Three Defensive Player of the Year awards and six straight appearances on the All-Defensive first team mean Gobert should be the greatest defensive player of his generation. The reason the Timberwolves paid a king's ransom to get Gobert was to win specific matchups with centers like this one against Jokić.
Gobert spent just 4:40 directly matched up against Jokić in their two games opposite each other this season, and the Nuggets center scored 9 points on five shots as his team netted an astounding 133.6 points per 100 possessions, per the NBA's tracking data. Turn back the clock to 2020, when Denver erased a 3-1 series deficit to beat Gobert's more talented Utah Jazz team in an opening-round series, and the numbers are worse. Jokić scored 73.4 points (on 53/51/87 shooting splits) per 36 minutes in twice that time opposite Gobert in the series, and the Nuggets scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.
Gobert's minutes cannot be that troubling against Jokić. They cannot be troubling even a little bit. For Minnesota to have any shot whatsoever against Denver, Gobert must make Jokić look ordinary. Good luck.
Denver Nuggets (-500)
Minnesota Timberwolves (+375)
Series schedule (all times Eastern)
Game 1: Minnesota at Denver on Sunday (10:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 2: Minnesota at Denver on Wednesday (10 p.m., TNT)
Game 3: Denver at Minnesota on Friday (9:30 p.m., ESPN)
Game 4: Denver at Minnesota on Sunday, April 23 (9:30 p.m., TNT)
*Game 5: Minnesota at Denver on Tuesday, April 25 (TBD)
*Game 6: Denver at Minnesota on Thursday, April 27 (TBD)
*Game 7: Minnesota at Denver on Saturday, April 29 (TBD)
Nuggets in five.