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Rocky Mountain low: The defending champs have been exposed

In Sports
May 07, 2024

DENVER — The Denver Nuggets looked as prime as any recent champion to break the trend of NBA parity, ready to repeat and along the way earn every benefit.

Now, all they have are doubts. The doubts are laid bare, smacking them directly in the face with long arms, steely eyes and a focus that should look familiar to their own.

They’re wearing the look of frustration, the look of summer vacation coming a month earlier than they originally planned. They look out of answers after two games in the Western Conference semifinals.

It’s not just that the Minnesota Timberwolves dismantled them in Game 2 of their best-of-seven series Monday night, a 106-80 thrashing at Ball Arena. It was the way it happened, the circumstances surrounding the Timberwolves taking a surprising 2-0 lead before heading home for two games at the Target Center this weekend.

Minnesota head coach Chris Finch is on crutches following knee surgery, sitting in the second row. Its starting center and defensive anchor, Rudy Gobert, was away tending to the birth of his child.

The stage was set for a championship-like response from the champions, especially from the likely Most Valuable Player, Nikola Jokić. The Timberwolves were waiting for the Nuggets to hit them and hit them hard.

And they’re still waiting.

DENVER, CO - MAY 6: Anthony Edwards (5) of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives between Michael Porter Jr. (1), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5), Jamal Murray (27) and Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, May 6, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Jokić rarely had one bad game last spring, let alone two in a row. That’s where he is right now, though, following his 16-point, 16-rebound, 8-assist performance that looks good on paper but not anywhere else.

The stat sheet says he had four turnovers, but it felt like so much more as he wilted under the haze of Timberwolves defenders, a relentless parade of eager wings more than willing to get down and dirty with the champions.

“We didn’t help ourselves,” Jokić said. “We didn’t share the ball. They’re long, they’re physical. Maybe we’re trying too much to drive into people. Maybe trust the pass a little more. They make you play that way.”

The Timberwolves are bringing the fight, and the Nuggets have yet to fight back, they’ve yet to engage to make things difficult for the challengers. They shot 32 percent in the first half, trailing 61-35, and were showered by a few boos from their home fans.

The halftime entertainment was the Nuggets dancers performing to Destiny Child’s “Survivor,” which seemed apropos considering that’s what they’ll have to do just to get this series back home for a Game 5.

“They kicked our ass, so yeah, it got away from us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The body language of our guys was not where I think it needs to be. But we just got beat up in our building. We got embarrassed in front of our fans.”

Perhaps it was frustration. Or confusion. Or even disinterest.

But with Jamal Murray (3-of-18, eight points) struggling with his body, which has translated to on-court displays of frustration like throwing a heat pack onto the floor during play, the Nuggets needed Jokić to assess the game, take it over and tie the series.

Instead, he was outplayed by Karl-Anthony Towns, who admirably filled in for Gobert. Towns stayed out of foul trouble and was as efficient as he’s been in any of his 22 career playoff games, scoring 27 with 12 rebounds in 35 minutes, with his plus-21 being second to Jaden McDaniels’ plus-26.

Naz Reid scored 14 off the bench, same as Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Each hit four triples, a sharp contrast to the Nuggets, who can’t shoot straight (34.9% overall, 30% from 3).

The Timberwolves are being physical with Jokić, pushing him off his spot, not allowing him to get comfortable, and what’s more, the league allowing more contact means Jokić hasn’t been rewarded with trips to the line.

“You feel embarrassed, you feel exposed,” Malone said. “So what are you gonna do about it? That’s my biggest thing. What are you going to do about it? Look yourself in the mirror, have the [fortitude], have the courage to look yourself in the mirror, and say, ‘I did not do my job tonight.’ And be better next game. That’s all I can ask them.”

The hot shooting from Michael Porter Jr. (4-of-12 from the floor) hasn’t carried over after his showing against the Lakers, and it’s worth noting the Nuggets have not played a complete game this entire postseason — they’ve been just good enough to skate by the Lakers, thanks to game-winners from Murray.

And this is the first 50-win team the Nuggets have played in a series over the last two playoff runs. This is adversity, which they didn’t face at all during last year’s dominant sprint through the postseason.

They had health and hunger on their side, now they have neither. They’re realizing defending a championship is much more difficult than chasing after it. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is encased in the hallway entering their locker room. They pass by it every time they take the floor.

But something’s off here, as evidenced by Minnesota taking a 32-point lead in the third quarter. Malone, sensing his team was off to yet another slow start, went at official Marc Davis in the first quarter following a no-call involving Murray and Towns as Towns bowled over Murray for a basket. As heated as the moment was, Malone didn’t even draw a technical foul.

“You have a player go out there and do that and try to do what you’re asking of them,” Malone said. “And he’s not rewarded. That’s very frustrating. I owe it to Jamal Murray to voice my concern, to voice my disagreement.”

The intensity is showing from the opponents. The Timberwolves, with every quarter that passes, with every complaint they see the Nuggets lobbying to the officials, are growing more confident that not only are they the better team, but they’ll win this series in short order.

Have they grown up that quickly? They’re undefeated in these playoffs, with rare moments of slippage. They’ve controlled the terms in which games are played and opponents have conceded.

“I always tell the team when we huddle up and [Finch] says we gotta be ready to take their punch, I say we’re gonna punch too,” said Anthony Edwards, who had 27 points and 7 assists. “They’re not the only one punching in the fight. I don’t give a damn if we go up 3-0, we’ll come out punching, too.”

Denver is staggered and wobbly after two massive haymakers at home, and they’re entering dubious territory. Since 2000, a defending champion has gone down 2-0 in a playoff series four times (2007, Heat; 2011, Lakers; 2012, Mavericks; 2020, Raptors). Each time, the champion went home.

Only once did the champion make a series of it, and that was the Kawhi Leonard-less Raptors in the Orlando bubble, so the circumstances were less than normal. But Jokić isn’t normal either, as a third MVP places him in the pantheon of greats, and sooner or later, he’ll put his stamp on this series.

It’s just that now, Edwards has had another stellar game, as did the aforementioned Towns. Gobert was excellent in the opener and stands to return to an emotionally charged Target Center in Minneapolis on Friday night.

A Denver comeback is not impossible but certainly improbable. More will be demanded of the Nuggets, and Jokić, in the coming days.

“I’m gonna fight for my guys, and I think I got to fight even more for them,” Malone said.

Problem is, they have to fight for themselves, too.

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