Jaden McDaniels was great for the Timberwolves in Game 6. Now comes the real test

Jaden McDaniels had one of his best games of the postseason — and likely the season at large — Thursday in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.

McDaniels tallied 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, while adding two blocks and a steal on the other end. It was the 23-year-old playing as the most optimized version of himself, and it’s hardly a coincidence it came in a 45-point Wolves’ win.

“When he plays well we win,” teammate Anthony Edwards said. “I don’t know the percentages but, I mean, I feel like when Jaden plays well, can’t nobody beat us.”

There’s some truth to that. Minnesota was 28-12 this season when McDaniels scored in double figures. But it won 56 games, so the team was pretty good in either scenario. Still, in the playoffs, when teams lock in on details and schemes meant to limit or derail stars, role players gain an added importance.

At various points in this series, Denver has gotten more out of its “others.” whether that is Justin Holiday or Christian Braun or, at a significantly higher level, Aaron Gordon.

That was far from the case on Thursday. McDaniels was actively seeking his offense, taking open jumpers while also looking for opportunities to attack. He didn’t hesitate when he got a chance to take Michael Porter Jr. off the bounce from the top of the floor, crossing up the Nuggets’ sharpshooter for an easy finish at the rim.

The biggest look, TImberwolves coach Chris Finch noted, was the 3-pointer McDaniels hit over a backed off Nikola Jokic to get Minnesota rolling after it fell behind 9-2 early.

“He played with a confidence,” Finch said. “We really needed to see that thing go down. And then it was just play off the catch, make the right play, stay confident. Everything came in the flow of the offense, and he got a bunch of buckets in a lot of different ways. Which is for us, when that’s happening with Jaden, we know we’re playing the right way.”

When that’s the case, everyone profits. Nickeil Alexander-Walker hit open shots. Minnesota’s movement generated mismatches Naz Reid could attack inside. Kyle Anderson scored at timely points.

That’s when the Wolves’ offense becomes significantly more difficult to guard.

“Obviously, anybody who plays the game and sees your shots go in early in the game, it’s great for your confidence, great for the rhythm,” Finch said. “People keep trusting the right play that you’re going to make the shots when they come to you. But it’s just about activity. When they’re active and their ball is moving, we’ve got a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket, and I think with Jaden sometimes, getting 10 shots is also a barometer for us. When he gets 10 shots a game, we’ve been pretty good.”

And when he plays like he did in Game 5 — looking hesitant to take any good look, lacking confidence when he does decide to shoot — it’s easy for a team like Denver to stack up against Edwards and bog the Wolves’ entire offense down.

In the playoffs, no one can allow themselves to go unguarded.

“I get more confidence as the shots go in. It’s just staying even keel even if I miss a couple in a row,” McDaniels said. “Just knowing that I’m capable of making shots. Just keeping that confidence instilled in myself.”

That will face the ultimate test on Sunday. It’s easier to be aggressive and confident at home. It’s easier to do so when the team is rolling and the lead is robust. But what about on the road, in Game 7 with the season on the line?

That’s when it’s difficult to trust yourself. But it’s also when McDaniels may be required to act if Minnesota is to down the champs in this now one-and-done scenario.

“We talked about it on the bench: There’s times when he cuts just to kind of cut to get out of the way but not cut to score,” veteran point guard Mike Conley said. “Like, stay in the corner sometimes, and be ready to shoot, because if you stay in the corner they’ve got to make a 2-on-1 decision. And he did that (Thursday) and was confident in his shot and his ability, and we’re confident in him. We’re going to need him. We don’t win without him, so for him to just stay confident, that’s just the biggest thing.”

“Hopefully,” Finch said, “this gives him the confidence to stack another one.”

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