Denver vs. Minnesota: An early look at the matchup, and the Timberwolves’ keys to the series

Anthony Edwards was visibly upset after Minnesota fell in five games to Denver in last year’s first-round playoff series.

Many likely remember Edwards running directly off the floor after his potential game-tying 3-pointer hit off the iron as the clock expired to end the Timberwolves’ season, and the folding chair relocation that briefly slowed his sprint to the tunnel.

But just as memorable was the dejection Edwards’ displayed in his postgame press conference roughly 15 minutes later. The generally charismatic All-Star guard could muster little in terms of insight or emotion.

Edwards said that first-round exit — his second in as many seasons — provided “all the motivation” he needed heading into the offseason. But he also said he took a little pressure off himself for the defeat once the Nuggets went on to win the NBA championship.

“Like, I lost to the championship team,” Edwards said after Minnesota completed its first-round sweep of Phoenix on Sunday. “But yeah, man, I don’t like that feeling at all, getting sent home — especially in five games. I mean, at least take them to seven, you know what I mean? Hopefully we play them a little tougher this time.”

That’s the Timberwolves’ plan and, frankly, the Wolves likely enter this series confident they’ll push — if not beat — the defending champion Nuggets. The second-round series starts Saturday in Denver. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m. CDT.

Bruce Brown, a key reserve guard for the Nuggets last season before leaving in free agency in the offseason, noted on a podcast last summer that Minnesota gave the Nuggets their toughest fight, even though the series went just five games.

And the Timberwolves feel like a better team this time around.

“We’re healthier,” Karl-Anthony Towns noted.

Towns is certainly in a better spot. He returned from a calf injury with just a couple games left in the regular season in 2023. While the same situation essentially played out this year with his meniscus tear, Towns returned in much better condition, and his reintegration into the fold has gone smoothly.

The Wolves also have Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, who missed last season’s series because of injuries. So, it’s possible Minnesota can give the defending champs a legitimate run this time around.

Here are the keys to the series:


The Denver guard officially sent the Lakers home packing in Game 5 on Monday with the go-ahead shot made in the closing seconds. It was Murray’s second game-winner of the series.

But outside of his late-game excellence, the guard struggled with his efficiency throughout the series. Over the five games, he eclipsed the 22-point plateau just once, while shooting 40% from the field and 29% from 3-point range.

Denver’s offense failed to hum at its usual pace throughout its series against the Lakers, and Murray’s lack of production was a big reason. Forget soon-to-be, three-time MVP Nikola Jokic, Murray — who played through a calf injury Monday — is often the best barometer for Denver’s success.

That’s been especially true against Minnesota. In last year’s playoffs, the Wolves only won Game 4, during which Murray went 8 for 21 from the field. Minnesota’s two regular-season wins this year against Denver came in a late March contest in which Murray didn’t play and an early November bout where Murray went 5 for 16 from the floor.

Meanwhile, Murray had 20 points and six assists while going 8 for 13 from the floor in Denver’s victory over Minnesota in April, and he had 13 assists when the Nuggets won at Target Center in mid-March.

He scored 40 in Game 2 of last year’s series and had 35 in the series-clinching Game 5. But McDaniels’ length can make life difficult for Murray. Nickeil Alexander-Walker had to chase Murray around, essentially, by himself in last year’s playoffs. The ability for Alexander-Walker and McDaniels to share the duty should prove advantageous for Minnesota.


Like many teams, Denver doesn’t really have an answer for Edwards. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a solid perimeter defending guard, but he gives up a lot of size to Edwards. Aaron Gordon, a mobile power forward, is Denver’s biggest potential “wing” defender, but he’s generally assigned the Towns’ matchup.

In last year’s series, Denver tried to guard Edwards relatively straight up, and often paid dearly for it. Finally, in Game 5, the Nuggets committed more resources to limiting the scoring guard, which freed up opportunities for others like Towns to shine. As was the case in the Wolves’ series sweep of Phoenix, nearly all of Minnesota’s offensive advantages were created through Edwards’ presence on the floor.

Edwards has demonstrated his ability to repeatedly make the right play for others when multiple defenders are assigned to slowing him. But should Denver again attempt to defend Edwards with just someone like Caldwell-Pope, Edwards has to be aggressive early to take advantage of that and force the Nuggets to shift strategies.

Because Denver doesn’t have a truly elite defensive wing or shot blocker in its starting five, Edwards is Minnesota’s biggest advantage in the series.


The Lakers scored 121 points per 100 possessions in clutch time in their first-round series against Denver, which demonstrated strong offensive execution with the game on the line. And yet the Lakers dropped all three games that were decided in clutch time.

Because Denver scored a remarkable 1.63 points per clutch-time possession. That’s offensive execution at its finest, and it resembles what the Nuggets have done all season. They sported the third-best clutch-time offense during the regular season and were the best clutch-time team overall. When the Nuggets run a possession late in a close game, they usually generate a good shot.

Minnesota, meanwhile, was 27th in clutch-time efficiency. The Wolves often bogged down on offense, which also, at times, compromised their defense.

That’s what was most encouraging about Minnesota’s Game 4 victory over Phoenix. While the Wolves obliterated the Suns over the first three contests of the series, they needed to ride Edwards over the final few minutes to close out the series-winner.

Edwards is more apt now to succeed in such situations as he’s evolved as a decision maker. If the Wolves can simply rely on the 22-year-old to steer the ship late in games and experience success doing so, they’re in good shape.

If not, Minnesota could find itself kicking away a couple winnable games against the Nuggets, something that cannot happen if the Wolves hope to reach their first Western Conference Finals since 2004.

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