By Daniel Paiz
The Denver Nuggets won a gritty brawl of a ballgame Tuesday night, winning Game 5 112-109 and winning their series 4-1 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Denver advances to the second round Western Conference Semifinals to take on the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns.
Nikola Jokic showed his MVP mettle, netting his eighth postseason triple-double with 28 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. Jamal Murray led Denver with a game-high 35 points, while Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown each chipped in 14 points. Minnesota battled all night, as chair-throwing Anthony Edwards led with 29 points, and Karl-Anthony Towns threw in 26 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Rudy Gobert also had a double-double like Towns, contributing 16 points and 15 rebound before also fouling out late in the fourth.
Game 5 Recap
Denver favored certain matchups in the last few games of this series, only using eight players in the closeout game. This equaled the number of players Minnesota rotated. One could argue not utilizing their bench depth led to these very close finishes in Games 4 and 5, but perhaps the Nuggets also wanted to decide who to rely on for the second round.
Minnesota did what they’ve done all season; had a 15-point lead in the first quarter, let Denver back in, and then trade the lead back and forth the rest of the game. The Wolves nearly exclusively relied on Edwards, Towns, and Gobert. An efficient 13 points of help from key reserve Taurean Prince was the only real bench help. The road team shot better from the floor than Denver but couldn’t hit threes or free throws.
Denver shot better from those two spots despite losing the field goal battle, and losing the points in the paint battle by 18 (58-40 in favor of the Wolves). Denver got to the free throw line and largely converted, and also rebounded, two key things that tipped the scales in their favor. In the second half, Jeff Green and Nikola Jokic and Bruce Brown each had hustle rebounds or tips that led to second chance opportunities. Whoever fights for those 50-50 balls usually wins, and Denver seemed to learn from Game 4 just how important doing so is.
Keys to Western Semis
Use the depth and move the ball around enough to tire out the Suns’ defense. Denver could throw Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Zeke Nnaji, Peyton Watson, and Vlatko Cancar at Kevin Durant on the defensive side of the ball. The Nuggets could also use Nikola Jokic, Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan, and Thomas Bryant against Deandre Ayton. Finding a balance between fresh legs and cohesive units against Phoenix will fatigue them; outside of Durant, Ayton, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul, the fourth seed doesn’t have a lot of bench help.
Understandably, Denver has to figure out on defense how to not get caught in high pick and rolls against Jokic. The last time these two met, Chris Paul had a field day stranding Jokic in no-man’s land in these situations. The free throw line happens to be one of Paul’s sweet spots, so Denver has to either figure out some kind of zone help, commit to some kind of double team, or Jokic will need to anticipate a bit on these plays.
Zones aren’t used that much in the playoffs, but something like a 3-2 zone or maybe even a 1-3-1 zone could take that option away from Paul and Ayton. Granted, this then leads to Denver needing to close out on defense on Booker and Durant when they get the ball. Denver will also need to slow down Durant and either make Booker or Paul a nonfactor offensively, because Ayton has yet to show he can take over a game.
If Denver can continue to get double digit nights from their starters, and consistent help from their bench, they can win this series. Use that depth to tire out the Suns, because most teams can’t play their starters 40-plus minutes at altitude, something will have to give. Expect Nikola Jokic to surpass Wilt Chamberlain for playoff triple-doubles by a center in this series.
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