Timberwolves assistant Nori fills in for Finch in a pinch

Even with his knee in a lot of pain, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch was still firing some zingers at assistant Micah Nori after the Wolves clinched their first-round series against Phoenix.

Nori filled in for Finch earlier in the season when Finch was too ill to coach a road game against Cleveland and again when Finch went out because of a ruptured right patellar tendon he suffered after a collision with point guard Mike Conley on Sunday.

Finch reminded Nori of that night in Ohio.

"Even after the game, he was blaming me for the Cleveland loss, which probably cost him the voting in the Coach of the Year," Nori said of Finch, who finished third for that award. "To which I said, 'Well anybody would do anything to get out of the last two minutes of a closeout game.'

"So his spirits were good."

It wasn't quite business as usual for the Wolves, but as close to it as possible, in the aftermath of Finch's injury both then and now after he had surgery Wednesday.

Nori, who ran Wednesday's practice, said the team still hopes to have Finch near or on the bench for Game 1 of the series against the Nuggets in Denver on Saturday. The Wolves are throwing around all sorts of scenarios, including moving some seats from the bench area to accommodate Finch's leg, to having him up in a suite as a worst-case scenario.

But Nori mentioned Finch wanted to be down near the action and not have to send messages from afar.

"Obviously the most important thing is making sure he's safe," Nori said. "But secondly, if we can do it, if we can get Finchy down on that bench, we for sure will."

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Finch was able to meet with the staff Tuesday and outline game plans for the Nuggets and how he wanted the week to progress leading up to Saturday. The Wolves will be flying to Denver on Thursday night to give themselves an extra day to acclimate to the elevation. Finch will likely fly out separately on Friday, Nori said, and he mentioned his job was to keep the culture and roles Finch outlined for everyone on staff humming along this week against a familiar opponent in Denver, the defending NBA champion.

"The best thing is just don't mess it up. I'm not trying to change a thing," Nori said.

Nori will likely end up being the standing sideline coach for the Wolves in the Denver series, which will be a kind of full-circle moment for him, considering he and Finch both served as assistants under Denver coach Michael Malone.

Nori has garnered the appreciation of Wolves fans thanks to the humorous Ted Lasso-like one-liners he delivers during his halftime interviews on Wolves broadcasts. Quips such as, "They caught us at the beach with no sunblock — we weren't prepared" or "Our paint defense was like 7-11 — open 24 hours."

But Nori, like his father, was actually a standout baseball player at Indiana, and his son Dante is a highly ranked MLB draft prospect who is committed to attend Mississippi State. He got into coaching soon after college and ended up becoming an intern and then a scout within the Raptors organization, which then led to assistant coach jobs with Toronto, Sacramento, Denver and Detroit before he came to the Wolves when Finch became head coach.

"He's an energetic guy," point guard Mike Conley said. "He's funny, witty. He's got a lot to him, and you know, I'm not saying Finchy isn't funny, but Finchy can seem a little more serious than Micah, and it's good to have that kind of balance. Guys really respect Micah and what he brings out our team."

For instance, earlier this season in a win over Golden State, players gave credit to Nori for knowing exactly what the Warriors were going to run on their final possession with a chance to tie the score.

There's probably no opponent Nori and Finch know better than Denver, given their history there with President Tim Connelly, the Wolves' 4-1 loss when the teams faced each other last season in the first round of the playoffs and Nori's relationship with Denver center Nikola Jokic, who could be named the league's MVP for the third time.

When the Nuggets and Wolves face each other during the regular season, you can often see Nori and Jokic sharing a few laughs with each other before games. There's a lot of history and material to work with for him and Finch, in whatever capacity Finch is able to help.

"You don't want to overthink things," Nori said. "One thing is you kind of know what you're going to get. We know how they're going to guard us. We know how they're going to guard them. It's moreso, more than anything I guess, down the stretch of games — what do they like to go to here and there?"