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Denver Nuggets Close the Door on Minnesota Timberwolves

Brendan Vogt Avatar
April 26, 2023

“I don’t care if it’s 8-seed, 1-seed, all that other BS — to win a series in the playoffs is hard.” – Michael Malone

It’s been a long season, folks. And we’re still going. Let’s shake it up for the sake of variety. We’ll grade the Denver Nuggets on their entire series and use Nikola Jokić’s grading scale. It’s 1-5 this time. Letters are overrated.

Nikola Jokić – 5

The Nuggets took care of business against the 8-seed, as they’re expected to do in the opening round. The Wolves looked the part too. Still, that doesn’t mean Jokić’s matchup was easy. Rudy Gobert is a game-changing defensive presence, albeit a magnet for jokes. Even while injured, he did his part in limiting Jokić to a great series — not a transcendent one. Jokić, navigating a wrist sprain, had to battle inside the clogged interior, fight for his life on the glass, and get his three-point shot back on track. He willed it all so.

He didn’t do it alone, though. His partner in hoop, Jamal Murray, came up big in crucial moments. Jokić went so far as to dub him “our best player this series.” Ever humble, Jokić won’t mind if we overlook his 26.2 PPG, 12.4 RPG, and 9.0 APG on 48% from the field and 50% from deep. Of course, it was essential to their gentlemen’s sweep.

It wasn’t always pretty. Jokić shot so poorly in Game 5 it triggered some existential confusion. He went 8/29 from the floor in the series clincher. I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing. His 40-piece, while masterful, came in a loss. He also came up short at the free-throw line in some clutch moments. He did not look invincible, but he did look like the best player in the series. His contributions were more than enough as Denver advanced to a different matchup with the Phoenix Suns. The two centers of Minnesota are in the rear-view mirror for Big Honey. Another mountain climbed.

Jamal Murray – 5

Murray rode some high peaks in round one. Like, Jokić, he was tested in the five-game series, despite the seeding. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a fellow Canadian and friend of Murray’s, bolstered his reputation with some impressive defense. He bogged Murray down at times, as is well documented. The documentation ignited the competitor’s spark in Murray, who decided to change the narrative in Game 5. He was spectacular in Ball Arena, keeping the starters afloat with 35 points on 12/23 from the field. “I had to,” Jamal said with a grin after the game. “I had to.”

Murray finished the series averaging 27.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 6.4 APG. He sometimes labored through it, but Murray is an athlete defined by meeting the moment. He has a knack for the spectacular. He prefers his back against the wall. He lives for postseason basketball.

Still, it was grueling. Murray looked exhausted early into the series, and the ball stuck in his hands in his worse games. Walker hounded him, and Gobert’s presence emboldened Minnesota’s perimeter defenders. As the series continued, Murray’s initially formidable defense began to slide. This was a taxing effort for Denver. The Nuggets are glad to have it over with in five games. And they can thank Murray first and foremost for that being the case. He slammed the door shut.

Murray is past the monikers now. “There’s only one Jamal,” he told us. Bubble Murray is dead. But there’s no denying he’s on the short list of playoff risers. He was inspired by Jimmy Butler’s heroics against the Bucks, he admitted after the game. He got goosebumps watching Butler feed off of and play to the crowd. “I had some moments like that tonight,” Murray said of Game 5.

Onward to Phoenix, a matchup he’s both thrived in and missed out on. A matchup that could very well decide the Western Conference champions.

AG – 4+

Michael Malone wouldn’t leave his Game 5 press conference without praising Aaron Gordon. Battling against two bigs and playing up a position off the bench, AG spent round one in the trenches. Foul trouble crept in, but he did his part in limiting Karl-Anthony Towns to an uninspiring start. He was key in Denver taking control early.

We got important answers and encouraging tape regarding Gordon’s utility in the playoffs. Whether it was Towns or Gobert on AG, they ignored him on the perimeter in favor of a shrunk interior. He’s not a shooter, so he had to attack the space. His typically clean looks at the rim were almost all contested, but he stayed confident. He didn’t shy away from contact and shot 17/19 from the free throw line — a topic of concern in the regular season. Anything he produced, he had to fight for amongst the trees.

Gordon also appears to be the answer in the non-Jokić minutes. Staggered alongside Murray or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the bench leaned into a switchable, athletic identity. Get stops, rebound, and run. We saw Gordon at the backup five a few times in the regular season, but only out of necessity. Long theorized as the solution to a struggling unit, the early returns on the double-stagger are encouraging after round one.

Michael Porter Jr. – 4

Porter spent his regular season developing into a reliable player for the Denver Nuggets. He learned how to adapt when his jumper wasn’t falling. He stepped it up defensively and slowly turned his focus back toward rebounding as his athleticism returned. He’s learned to walk a fine line between being aggressive without becoming disruptive as a third option. All of these lessons were germane in the opening round.

Let’s start with the defense. The Wolves are not the ideal opponent to put his newfound competence to the test, but consider how little it came up throughout the series. Minnesota did not hunt Porter in isolation. His length made a difference on multiple occasions. He was generally steady on that end.

He also identified rebounding as a potential swing factor and area of impact. He knew Jokić would have his hands full, so he attacked the glass with renewed vigor. Porter averaged 8.2 rebounds per game in round one. It’s the best he’s looked as a rebounder since the latest surgery.

Porter ultimately shot 42.4% from three-point range on 6.6 attempts. He was lethal — but there were prolonged stretches when his catch-and-shoot prowess failed him. He was ice-cold in games 4 and 5 before the fourth quarter began. Then he locked in.

MPJ has a short memory. He’s a clutch shooter, even on nights when he’s struggling.

KCP – 4-

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope proved an important off-season pickup right off the bat. His perimeter defense was spectacular in game one, helping Denver take off out of the gate. Denver’s defense waned as the series continued, but Pope was responsible for much of what went well in the first three games. He was relentless on and off the court, demanding championship-level habits and communication from his teammates.

Pope shot 36.4% from deep, which is tenable although somewhat disappointing. He was just as lethal off the ball as MPJ to start the season, but its length is taking a toll on his once otherworldly efficiency. Still, Pope flashed his value as Denver won a series in five games for the first time in the Jokić-era.

Bruce Brown – 4+

Brown gave the Nuggets the series they needed off the bench. He was ferocious, attacking the rim like a man possessed. He did not fear the Wolves’ bigs. He doesn’t fear anyone. The stagger was a resounding success, aided by AG’s presence alongside Murray.

Brown struggled in some areas. He’s Denver’s best option as a secondary ball handler outside of Murray or Jokić, and that’s suboptimal. While the aggression was needed, he teeters on the line of control. He’s also sneaky turnover prone. He shot 21.4% from three-point range against the Wolves. The size was an issue when guarding Edwards.

There are nits to pick, but it was ultimately an excellent series for him. His insatiable appetite for basketball is ideal for the playoffs. You either step up or shrink. Brown did the former in five games against the Wolves. His Tiny King energy surged.

Jeff Green – 3

Green’s statistical output is dreadful, but the minutes were not. He fit surprisingly well into the second unit’s identity. Maybe not so much the rebounding, but he stepped up his defense, helping the foul-plagued AG hold Towns in check.

Green didn’t score well. He didn’t rebound well. But he did factor into the success of the non-Jokić minutes. And those minutes went too well to complain about Malone’s rotation.

Christian Braun – 4-

We’ll grade Braun on a heavy curve. Consider the context — he cracked Malone’s eight-man playoff rotation as a rookie and contributed while on the floor. The second unit featured in round one is the best group yet in the 2022-23 campaign. The rookie played a significant role in that. So much of round one was about maturity for Denver, and CB’s a great example. Even the 22-year-old looked composed.


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