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Wolves boss helped build Nuggets into 'best team in the world'

DENVER – During the postseason, Denver center Nikola Jokic has been doing commercials for the "Despicable Me" franchise of movies. He has a resemblance to the character Gru, who is among the most benevolent villains in film.

For the second consecutive season, Timberwolves President Tim Connelly will be playing the role of the mad scientist who, halfway through a movie, realizes he has built a monster and has to figure out a way to bring it down.

Connelly was responsible for assembling four of the pieces in Denver's starting lineup, which helped carry it to an NBA championship last season. That includes Jokic, guard Jamal Murray, and forwards Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. — all acquired and given contract extensions in Connelly's term.

Now Connelly has quickly built the team that might pose the greatest threat to Denver's dominance of the league, as the Wolves have the size and perimeter defense few teams possess to combat Denver's strengths. If the Wolves take down Denver in the Western Conference semifinal series that begins here Saturday, Connelly will be thrilled, but there's still a lot of affection for the people on his former team.

"While I'm competitive, I'm not step-on-your-throat competitive," Connelly said Thursday. "Quite frankly, if we're gonna go down, we're gonna go down against good buddies and people we have a ton of respect for."

There's a lingering issue hovering over this series, especially if the Wolves should lose it. Connelly has built a potential machine with the Wolves, but the question afterward will be if he'll have the necessary funding to maintain it. The Wolves are headed full speed for a hefty luxury tax bill next season if they keep this team together, with contract extensions coming on the books for Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns and Mike Conley.

That's not to mention the issue of who will be signing off on a potential luxury tax bill, as the legal process in the ownership dispute among Glen Taylor, Alex Rodrgiuez and Marc Lore figures to drag on for months.

Will this series serve as a referendum on just how close the Wolves are to competing for a title, or have Connelly and ownership seen enough to try and run this group back as much as possible next season, regardless of cost?

"I think we're a contender now. We have to believe it," Connelly said. "We're entering the second round with an unblemished playoff record. This room certainly thinks we're a contender. Relative to what the offseason looks like, it would be unfair to answer those questions prior to our conclusion and we hope not to conclude for a long time."

When the Wolves made the Gobert trade, their initial goal was to be a second-round playoff team, and after falling short last year for several reasons, including injuries and immaturity, the Wolves are where they set out to be when Connelly made the big swing.

"When Tim Connelly made that trade everybody was laughing at him and what he was doing," Jokic told reporters in Denver. "But he made a great team."

Said Connelly: "We felt pretty convinced that we had the cultural DNA to be a good team. We thought we had the talent, we knew we had an elite coaching staff. Could we grow up a little bit around the edges? Could we not expose ourselves to so many self-faults and unforced errors? I think we've done that for the most part all season."

Denver will provide perhaps the ultimate test of maturity. The Nuggets thrive on other teams' mistakes, and even when games go against them for stretches, they don't get rattled. Jokic, and his even-keeled demeanor, has a lot to do with that.

"Denver is the best team in the world," Connelly said. "We're playing the best team in the league and the defending champs, so it'll be a great test for us just to see how we can have emotional control, which I thought was excellent in the first series, and game-plan discipline."

The Wolves didn't have that last year against Denver. Now they have a full roster, and they feel like they are better equipped to take down the machine Connelly helped build.

"We have to believe that we can make a real run," Connelly said. "... This room thinks they can win a championship. So why not us?"