The Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Denver Nuggets 112-104 Wednesday night in what may be the start of a budding rivalry. The Wolves now find themselves with a record of 19-13, including a record of 16-6 against the Western Conference and 6-1 against the Northwest Division.
The Nuggets burst out of the gates, connecting on jumpers and drawing fouls, and built as much as a 10-point lead before the end of the first quarter. Jamal Murray, who wished to be drafted by the Wolves back in the summer of 2016 and had himself a revenge game of sorts, and Nikola Jokic were the driving forces behind Denver’s hot start. Murray connected on two quick three-pointers and Jokic forced both Karl-Anthony Towns, who had to be given a quick hook, and Gorgui Dieng into early foul trouble.
Taj Gibson, who ended up with a plus/minus of -8 in a rare bad game, single-handedly kept the Wolves within reach in the first quarter, connecting on all three of his field goal attempts and preventing what otherwise would have been two easy buckets for the Nuggets (one was via a blocked shot and the other due simply to hustling on the defensive end).
The majority of the game was a physical slog, with Jokic and Mason Plumlee going chest to chest with Towns. For three quarters, the Nuggets’ starters thoroughly outplayed the Wolves’, as evidenced by the plus/minus data, leaving the Wolves’ bench(!) to do most of the heavy lifting.
(Quick aside: Torrey Craig, one Denver’s two-way players, started for the Nuggets and played 37 minutes; he provided 10 points, six rebounds, and two assists. It just goes to see how valuable, when properly used, the two-way contract can be. The Wolves have a player in Anthony Brown who, I’m convinced, could be impactful off the bench for approximately 10 minutes per night. He’s got a sweet shooting stroke (he’s shooting 42.2% from three on six attempts per game) and the Wolves’ desperately need a consistent three-point shooting threat. I think Tom Thibodeau could get better use out of his two-way contracts, especially since one remains unused.)
The Nuggets lead the Wolves by four after three quarters and appeared to have the upper hand heading into the fourth.
However, it was Butler and Jamal Crawford who once again saved the day for the Wolves. Crawford’s hot second-half shooting continued as the 38-year-old vet poured in 12 of his 20 points in the third and fourth quarters on 4/6 from the field and 2/2 from the free throw line. Butler, who has been phenomenal in clutch situations (when the game is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in the game) scored 11 of the Wolves’ final 15 points.
.@JimmyButler's clutch time numbers in December…
6.0 PPG (#2 behind K.Durant)
49.8% USG% (#4)
42 MP (#5)
MIN now 11-8 (#11) in clutch time after 15-30 (#27) last season.
— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) December 21, 2017
Murray finished the evening with 30 points, four rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Jokic contributed 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists, while Plumlee added 13 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists.
Towns led the Wolves with 25 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, and three steals, but Butler wasn’t far behind contributing 25 points, two rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Crawford led the bench charge with 20 points and seven assists in 28 minutes(!). Dieng (21 minutes) and Tyus Jones (18 minutes) also provided valuable minutes off the bench, contributing a plus/minus of +13 and +10, respectively. Andrew Wiggins’ shooting woes continued but was able to contribute five rebounds and 35 minutes of +3 play.
After the game, Towns, when asked by FSNorth’s Marney Gellner about what drove him and the Wolves to play well against the Nuggets, stated, “This is personal…I’ve got a backstory.”
"This is personal." pic.twitter.com/0owDTagJmJ
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) December 21, 2017
Towns neglected to elaborate on his comments, stating only that “everything has a backstory”, but it’s probably safe to assume that Towns was referring to an oft-rumored, but lacking physical evidence beyond what is seen on the court beef/rivalry with Jokic. The Wolves have lacked a true rival over the last handful of years as they mired in mediocrity, with only the 2013-14 Portland Trailblazers possibly coming close. It would be great for the Wolves, and the league, if Towns v. Jokic/Wolves v. Nuggets developed into one of the Western Conference’s best and most fun rivalries. If Wednesday night’s showdown is any indication, it’s already well on its way.
The Wolves are next in action on Saturday, December 23rd against….those pesky Phoenix Suns. Tip is set for 8 pm CT.