Karl-Anthony Towns unleashed a primal scream and Malik Beasley held his pose for just a beat longer than he needed to.
Needing a win to keep their hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament alive, Minnesota came into Ball Arena and wrested Friday night’s game away from the Nuggets. Their 136-130 victory snapped Denver’s three-game winning streak and trimmed its cushion over the Timberwolves to just two games with only four games left in the regular season. Minnesota, however, owns the tiebreaker.
“Good teams don’t beat themselves, and that’s our biggest problem,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
Now 46-32, the No. 6 Nuggets head to Los Angeles for a Sunday tilt against the Lakers. Instead of building an almost insurmountable lead over Minnesota, the Nuggets fell to a team that was more desperate.
Led by Towns’ 32 points, the Timberwolves rode their sweet 3-point shooting in the dramatic win. Minnesota rained in 19 of 40 3-pointers and converted Denver’s 18 turnovers into 30 points.
It was a win they had to have, and they got it. Only the pre-game sight of Jamal Murray working up another sweat against Denver’s developmental staff lightened the mood.
“Keep hope alive,” Malone said when asked about Murray’s potential return.
Nikola Jokic was astounding yet again. He poured in 38 points on 14-of-21 shooting, with 19 rebounds and eight assists. He did nothing to diminish his mounting case for a second consecutive MVP.
Aaron Gordon dumped in 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting, and Monte Morris poured in 23 and was 4 of 5 from 3-point range. Their late surge — a barrage of 3-pointers from Morris, Gordon and Will Barton — cut the margin to 133-130 with 24 seconds left before the Wolves iced it.
The chaotic, frenetic pace of the first half grinded to a stubborn halt in the third. The Nuggets opened with several sloppy turnovers to give Minnesota early momentum, but they quickly settled down. Morris eased into a 3-pointer and a smooth jumper, then polished off his run with a clutch layup.
His burst soon gave way to Jokic, who dominated whichever center the T-Wolves tried to use on him. After Towns picked up another quick foul, they deployed Naz Reid and Jarred Vanderbilt. Neither physical big man worked. Jokic scored nine in the quarter and hauled in six rebounds as he physically imposed himself in the paint. The Nuggets clawed back into the game, trailing just 98-94 heading into the fourth.
Malone couldn’t narrow his priorities against the Timberwolves to just one area.
“Obviously, the 3-point line is a big part of that. … They’re first in makes, they’re first in attempts on the season, a big part of their offense. We have to do a much better job than we’ve done,” Malone said. “I think offensively, taking care of the ball. Fourth in steals, first in turnovers-forced, and they score roughly 20 points a night off those forced turnovers. We cannot be careless and fuel their break. The reality is this, no disrespect to Oklahoma City, Charlotte, or Indiana, but we’ve won three in a row and have not played good basketball.”
Most of the first half Friday night wasn’t clean basketball, either. The Timberwolves were physical and gritty in setting the tone early. They appeared to knock Jokic at every opportunity they got and actively sought contact on the other end. As a result, Towns got into foul trouble after torching the Nuggets for 18 points in the first half.
The Timberwolves took a 70-65 lead into halftime that would’ve been much worse had the Nuggets not responded to Minnesota’s aggression. Jokic played bully-ball, scoring 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the first half.
But the most visceral response came from Gordon, whose aerial assaults sparked the rowdy crowd. Gordon hammered several dunks, but none more impactful than his soaring, reverse alley-oop off a feed from Morris. The dunk ignited the Nuggets and spurred their late second-quarter run.