Souhan: Wolves’ Edwards, Nuggets’ Murray will be keys to series

In the second quarter of the Timberwolves' lopsided playoff loss to Denver on Friday night, Nuggets star Jamal Murray walked to the corner to guard Jaden McDaniels, then bent over to hold the seams of his shorts, conjuring the universal symbol of a tired basketball player.

He looked exhausted, and for good reason. Murray spent much of the first half making difficult shots against the top-ranked defense in the NBA while playing with a calf strain that probably won't fully heal this postseason.

The Wolves brought the ball up court, and the possession ended with McDaniels staying in the corner and Murray catching his breath.

The Wolves should not ever let him catch his breath.

There may be, as Wolves center Rudy Gobert said, "a million factors" that determine the outcome of a highly competitive series, but the two most prominent factors in this series are likely to be these:

1. Murray's scoring.

2. Anthony Edwards' ability to play like a superstar.

Murray is the Nuggets' greatest variable. Nikola Jokic is going to make the right play in every situation. Murray can be great, or he can get so frustrated he whines all game and throws foreign objects onto the court.

When Murray plays well, the Nuggets remind you why they are the defending champions. When he doesn't, the Nuggets look shallow and offensively limited.

To win Game 4 and the series, the Wolves need not only to defend him well — they need to make him play defense. You can't make the high-degree-of-difficulty shots that Murray did in Game 3 if your legs are tired. The Wolves didn't make him work hard enough bringing the ball up the court, or when he was on defense. And their inability to test his defense also prevented any chance of him getting into foul trouble.

"Yeah, for sure," Wolves coach Chris Finch said about the importance of making Murray work on defense. "But, I mean, offensively, we weren't good anywhere."

Gobert and other Wolves shrugged and noted that Murray is a great player with a championship pedigree. What they could have said, had they been less cautious, is that he can also shoot the Nuggets right out of a game when he's frustrated.

While Murray was dominating the first half on Friday night, Anthony Edwards was easing into the game. Sometimes that's a sign of maturity, that he won't force shots, that he's looking to involve teammates before he takes over. Friday, he never took over, finishing with just 19 points and failing to make a dramatic difference on defense.

"I wasn't aggressive," Edwards said. "We'll be ready Sunday.

"It's on me. I'll take the blame for this loss. I came out with no energy and all, and I can't afford to do that for my team."

Edwards might receive praise for being accountable, but his explanation makes no sense. The Wolves were playing their first home playoff game since April 23, the arena and the city were primed for a celebration, and a victory over the Nuggets would have all but assured a berth in the Western Conference finals, and maybe even a chance to rest longer than their next opponent.

No energy?

That's bizarre.

As for Murray, in winning playoff games since the start of the 2023 postseason, he has averaged 26 points per game. In losing playoff games in that span, he has averaged 20.6.

In this series, Murray scored 25 total points in the two losses and 24 in the victory.

That total alone — 24 points — doesn't reflect the importance of his first-half performance on Friday.

Murray scored eight points in the first quarter and 10 in the second, on his usual array of three-pointers, drives and fallaway jumpers with a hand on his face.

He looked healthy and energized.

"Jamal was Jamal," Wolves guard Mike Conley said. "He's not going to go 3-for-18 every game. In Denver, he missed some wide-open shots. That doesn't happen very often. Tonight, he made those same shots.

"We didn't help ourselves by giving him easier shots than the games before."

In Game 4, the Wolves need to make Murray feel like he's running through an obstacle course, not strolling down the lane.