A professional win completed professionally by the professional basketball team from the great “City of Minnesota.” The Wolves talked their trash, to be sure, but only when they knew for certain it would be backed up. There were few extra-curricular activities and even fewer turnovers on the way to the Wolves’ 6 point win in Denver to yank themselves closer to a guaranteed playoff spot and clinch a series win over the Nuggets. Wolves BACK.
Season series win over Denver
This was not something I expected, especially after the 1st matchup where the Wolves controlled most of the game yet lost in the final seconds. Denver just has had the Wolves’ number since Game 82 a few years ago. Well, the switch has flipped, people.
The Wolves completely turned around the “little brother” narrative they have with the Nuggets by smacking them twice on their home floor, and running them out of the gym at the Target Center. No, the Nuggets have not had Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. for any of those 3 matchups, but they still have the reigning MVP and most of the rest of the team has been intact.
More than establishing which team is actually “better,” it was important for the Wolves to win the series to get past any mental barriers that could linger. For several years while Denver has competed for top spots in the conference and the Wolves have toiled near last place it was apparent that the Wolves had less talent, less depth, and worse tactics than Denver in every matchup. Beating them 3 out of 4 times and outscoring them by 36 points over the 4 games helped the Wolves bury that narrative — hopefully for good.
Did we get a glimpse at the playoff rotation?
With a nearly healthy rotation, Chris Finch only went with 9 players against Denver. This is the time of year when rotations get shortened and the best players’ minutes top-out during important games.
If Jaden McDaniels had been healthy, the rotation is likely spread to 10, but it was clear that Finch was going to play the guys making the most impact. Taurean Prince was the clearest example by logging 28 minutes in place of Vanderbilt who only played 22 minutes. Prince’s shot-making and defensive acumen was critical in a high-intensity game, and Finch knew he couldn’t afford to keep him off the floor.
Many Wolves fans may find it disheartening that Jaylen Nowell did not see the floor in a “playoff type” game, but with Beasley returning and the need for a little more size on the wing, there was not an obvious need for Jaylen’s skills. I think that should give us a hint towards Nowell’s playoff usage — it is likely going to be matchup/game flow dependent.
Jaylen has a lot of really useful skills, but in the playoffs teams lean on their stars to win, so any player that emphasizes those stars’ abilities will see playing time. Beverley, Beasley, Prince, McDaniels, and even McLaughlin are examples of guys that can make each of KAT, Ant, and DLo’s lives easier. Nowell can be a great fill-in for those guys, but does not always show the complementary skills, especially defensively, that will make him a really valuable playoff contributor this season.
Malik Beasley is so essential
The Wolves have gotten smoked in the 3 games that Malik Beasley has missed this season. Sure, they played difficult opponents (Philly, at Boston, at Toronto) but it was obvious his release-valve support on offense was missed in those games.
I would call his overall game against Denver a “solid performance,” nothing special, but we saw how important that is for this Wolves team. Beasley only hit 4 three point shots in 10 attempts, but the threat of his off-ball movement and long range sniping gives defenses fits. Overall percentages be damned, this dude is having a ridiculous shooting season.
Since December 1st — 54 games if sample size is your thing — Malik is shooting about 8 threes per game and making just a touch under 40%. There are only a few players in the entire league who have taken and made more 3’s than Malik, and they are some of the most recognizable shooters in the game (Curry, Hield, Van Vleet). No wonder the offense looked much cleaner and explosive with him in the game. He is about as skilled of a shooter as there is in the NBA right now.
Of course, Malik is not perfect. He’s can be a bit volatile and get shot-happy at times **cough cough shooting a pull-up 3 during a 4 on 1 fast break cough cough** but he also has the ability to hit the right 3 at the right time to seal a game:
The Big 3 passed the baton on offense very well
There have been times during the 21–22 Wolves season when the fit of DLo, Ant, and KAT has been a bit clunky. Early in the year it was very much a your-turn-my-turn offense. That has given way to an offense with a much better flow ranking among the league’s best, but it still seemed to lack just a little bit of flow between the team’s 3 best players.
That mostly changed on Friday against Denver. KAT and DLo were both 5-alarm fires in the 1st quarter as they were perfect from the field. The two max players were locked in, so there was no need for Ant to do much.
In the 2nd quarter it was the DLo parade to the free throw line as KAT sat with foul trouble and Ant struggled to see shots drop. Russell was able to carry the offense to work through uncertain times.
When the 3rd quarter came KAT started to percolate again. He netted 9 points on only 4 shots in less than 6 minutes. Finch yanked him because of foul trouble to set him up to play the entire 4th. Ant had yet to join the scoring more than a single bucket, so thankfully the bench stepped up to keep the lead heading to the final frame.
Then Ant and his magnificent step back 3 joined the chat. The young gun poured in 14 points on 5/5 from the field. 3 threes and 2 sweet little layups helped the Wolves to nail the coffin shut on the Nuggets’ comeback attempts. He was the perfect closer for this high-octane game, even after starting 1/10 from the field.
And that’s how it can go in these huge games that the Wolves will find themselves in over the next month or (hopefully) two. They don’t need to all score at once and work together perfectly at the same time. There can be some essence of “hot-hand” strategy to keep the offense moving when teams completely load up on KAT. Hopefully we see more performances like this one in the future!
Still alive for the 6th seed
Had the Wolves lost Friday’s game in Denver, they could have pretty much packed it in for the season to prepare for the play-in game against the Clippers. They would have been 3 games back from Denver and 2.5 games back of Utah with only 4 to play. Well, this win kept them alive as they are only 2 back of Denver AND own the tiebreaker, essentially making it a 1.5 game deficit.
What’s more, the Wolves are through one of the most difficult stretches they’ve had all season. They’ll play one more on the road at Houston who likely has no interest in winning that one, then come home for their final 3 games against Washington, San Antonio, and Chicago. There is a very real path to 4–0 over that stretch, and finishing the season with 48 wins (side note: that’s crazy based on expectations).
Unfortunately, Denver’s schedule is not exactly a murderer’s row. They’ll play the Lakers next who should be desperate but as we know are an absolute mess. Then they’ll get the Spurs who are also clawing for that 10th spot. Those are probably their best chances to lose. Finally they’ll see the Grizzlies with a completely locked up 2 seed already, and the Lakers to finish the year who will either not care one bit about that game or LeBron will be gunning to win the scoring title — hard to tell!
There is also some lingering hope to catch the Jazz, but they own the tiebreaker on the Wolves AND catch both of the super-tankers in the league — Portland and OKC. I’m not holding my breath on that one.
To me the most fun scenario to imagine is Golden State falling all the way to the 7th seed. It would take a miracle, but it’s technically possible and there is not a super obvious win on their schedule, especially without Curry. With 5 games left, they would need to lose out and the Wolves win out. They have Utah at home, at Sacramento, home against the Lakers, then on the road to finish against the Spurs and Pelicans. The only team in that group that isn’t desperate to win is the Kings, and you just never know with that team. Less than a 1% chance to happen? Maybe, but as long as it’s possible I’ll be rooting like hell for it!
Ultimately winning that game against Denver showed me that these Wolves can absolutely focus and win a huge game. If they can do that against the Nuggets on the road, I am perfectly confident they can take down the Clippers in a raucous Target Center.