Given how unconvincingly the Denver Nuggets ended the 2022-23 regular season, a few pundits believed that they could be vulnerable to a first-round upset. Even head coach Michael Malone believed that if the Nuggets didn’t get their act together, they might as well be first-round fodder. But the Minnesota Timberwolves learned the hard way that the Nuggets earned the one-seed for a reason. Here we’re making a few predictions for how the Timberwolves would respond to their blowout loss in their first game of the 2023 NBA playoffs.
The Timberwolves had to overcome the play-in tournament just to squeak by as the worst Western Conference playoff team (based on record). Their fatigue then became very much apparent in Game 1. After hanging on against the Nuggets for the first 20 or so minutes of the game, the Timberwolves ran out of steam in the second half as they suffered a 109-80 defeat — their second-worst margin of defeat this season. (Their worst loss also came against the Nuggets, a 146-112 thrashing back on February 7.)
The Timberwolves simply were not able to keep up with a well-rested Nikola Jokic, who simply had his way despite coming up against the twin-tower duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. .
Simply put, the makings were there for a Timberwolves loss. But with the Timberwolves now acclimated, fans should expect them to put up a better fight than they did in Game 1.
Here are three bold predictions for how the Timberwolves would perform in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Nuggets.
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3. Rudy Gobert notches 15+ points, 15+ rebounds, and 4+ blocks
Is it too early to say that the Timberwolves’ trade for Rudy Gobert was a colossal failure? Perhaps. Gobert has dealt with lingering injury issues all season long, and now, he’s simply powering through a back injury, which became a sticking point in his argument with teammate Kyle Anderson.
But if there ever was a series for Gobert to prove himself worthy of the price the Timberwolves paid for his services, it’s this one against the Nuggets.
Rudy Gobert has come up against Nikola Jokic in the playoffs before. In 2020, Gobert and the Utah Jazz went up 3-1 against the Nuggets, with the Stifle Tower playing a huge role in earning that series lead. As stellar of an offensive player Jokic is, Gobert, at his best, can give the two-time MVP fits due to his length and intimidating presence at the rim, as seen three years ago. He’s also the rare player who could hold his own against Jokic in a one-on-one setting.
But in Game 1, Jokic gave Gobert the work; Jokic twinkled his toes perfectly in the post, torching Gobert (along with Kyle Anderson and Karl-Anthony Towns), which then made life easier for the rest of the Nuggets’ supporting cast.
But in Game 2, expect Gobert to come out with a vengeance and notch just his third game of 15+ points, 15+ rebounds, and 4+ blocks this season.
2. Nickeil Alexander-Walker drains 4+ threes
Losing Jaden McDaniels, the Timberwolves’ best perimeter defender, to a hand injury with the playoffs beckoning slashed what little there already was left of their chances of making a deep run. This has forced head coach Chris Finch into a conundrum on who his fifth starter would be alongside the core four of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards, and Mike Conley.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the play-in game, Finch went with Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and the fourth-year guard delivered. He played solid defense on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander en route to a convincing victory, so Finch decided to roll with NAW yet again in Game 1 against the Nuggets.
Of course, the entire Timberwolves team fell flat during that contest, Alexander-Walker included. But for the Timberwolves to have a puncher’s chance to steal homecourt advantage away, NAW will have to make his open shots, especially from deep.
NAW made just four or more triples in five occasions this past season, but he should make it six as he steps up as a reliable floor-spacer in Game 2 for a Timberwolves team in desperate need of a boost.
1. Timberwolves get Nikola Jokic in foul trouble… again
One of the biggest question marks for the Nuggets over the past few years has been their defense, particularly at the rim. Jokic may be a smart defensive player, as he always gets his hands in passing lanes, but he has never been the most intimidating rim protector. And the Timberwolves may be able to take advantage of that, especially if Jokic plays as carelessly as he did in Game 1.
Jokic fouled out in Game 1, although the score line may have played a factor in the Nuggets star’s willingness to accrue those infractions. Nevertheless, it would be best for the Timberwolves if they continue to bait Jokic into committing unnecessary fouls. By then, not only would they cut on Jokic’s aggression on either end of the floor, they could also go at him more aggressively towards the basket.
If this happens, the onus will especially be on Anthony Edwards, as Edwards is the Timberwolves’ best slashing threat.
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