Don't count out Denver just yet: 3 adjustments the Nuggets can make against the Timberwolves

From the podium following his team's second straight loss to open a second-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone's first four words were accurate.

"They kicked our ass," he told reporters.

The Wolves did not just beat the defending champions in Game 2. "We got embarrassed in front of our fans," added Malone, whose team takes its deficit to Minnesota for Friday's Game 3 (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Teams trailing 2-0 in a seven-game series have won 7.8% of the time (27-319). That number has doubled to 15.9% (7-37) since 2018-19, when skyrocketing 3-point attempts introduced higher variance. Still, only one team from the past six years — the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers against the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round of the 2021 playoffs — has lost its first two games at home and won the series.

But the Nuggets are no ordinary team. They are led by Nikola Jokić, the seventh player ever to win three MVPs in four seasons (joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and LeBron James). Denver's 16-4 run through last year's playoffs also shares rare company. Seven other legends who won 80% of their games en route to a title — Bird, Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Stephen Curry — won multiple rings. Five went back-to-back.

This would be a stunning setback, one that categorizes Denver's greatness into a different context. No longer might the Nuggets be a budding dynasty. They could be a one-hit wonder whose all-time great leader — for all his dominance the past four years — could not maintain a perch atop the NBA for long.

Anthony Edwards' Minnesota Timberwolves may find themselves on the other side of that bargain, an ascendent juggernaut spearheaded by a fearless 22-year-old frontman whose ceiling is a stratosphere.

Fortunes change quickly in the NBA, which is why we should be wary about writing the Nuggets off too soon. The Wolves could be a bad matchup. Their defense could be historic. Edwards could be the second coming of Michael Jordan. Denver could also win Game 3 and remake the complexion of this series.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) in the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Monday, May 6, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
All eyes are on three-time MVP Nikola Jokić. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

We hear a lot around the NBA about winning in the margins. Turnovers, offensive rebounds, 50/50 balls, free throws, etc. But Minnesota has crossed those lines, enveloping the Nuggets, winning in their space.

"We didn't own our spots," said Malone, "and we didn't meet their aggression and physicality."

Start at the elbow, where Jokić has made a Hall of Fame career. Double him, and he will find an open shooter or slicing cutter. Otherwise, he will back his opponent into the paint, spinning and stepping through to a shot he converts two-thirds of the time. Does not matter if Rudy Gobert is defending him.

Only, Karl-Anthony Towns has pushed Jokić from his offensive hub and lulled him to the 3-point line, where he is 2-for-10 in the series. That, and Naz Reid had the defensive night of his life in Game 2. Jokić averaged 11 elbow touches per game in the regular season, most in the league, per the NBA's tracking data. That number increased to 13.6 in Denver's first-round series. He had nine in Game 1 against the Wolves and seven in Game 2. If 6-foot-11, 284-pound Nikola Jokić cannot fight for his spot, who can?

Even if Jokić does not establish his initial position at the elbow, he generates quality looks for himself and others when he rolls to the free-throw line. Too often, he has settled at the arc (or beyond). If Jokić wants to beat them from distance, the Timberwolves will live with that; and if he takes himself out of the play entirely, all the better. The closer Jokić receives the ball, the deadlier Denver's offense. See for yourself:

Towns does not want Jokić barreling to the basket. The same is true of Gordon or anyone else. You can practically see Towns choosing between a foul or flop and the sense of relief when they fade from him:

Not owning their spots isn't the Nuggets' only problem. Aaron Gordon has no jump shot. Jamal Murray has no legs on his. Everyone is avoiding contact, even as they absent-mindedly dribble into a crowd. They are setting fewer screens, throwing fewer passes and logging fewer secondary assists. It is hard to do all of that and attempt more low-efficiency field goals in the final seconds of the shot clock, and yet the Nuggets have done it.

There may be no solution to Gordon's shooting but to avoid it. Three days of rest should give Murray some extra bounce. Everything else comes down to playing with intent. Move the ball. Do not cede ground to Towns. Get a teammate open. And for goodness' sake, do not go entire possessions without finding Jokić.

Even when Denver runs its patented pick-and-roll between Murray and Jokić, it is as if everyone else has forgotten they can move without the ball. To be fair, the Nuggets have played this way all season, sitting Gordon in the dunker's spot and both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. on the wings. Except, when Minnesota has them locked down, they must remember it is OK to make a defense think.

Even when Gordon sets an off-ball screen, he may as well be ignored. The defense never even needs to consider whether anyone on Denver might curl or cut to any open space but the one they always occupy:

This is where the Nuggets miss Bruce Brown the most. He was always a threat to randomize the offense. He also helped speed Denver's process. The Nuggets have never been a fast-paced team in Jokić's prime, but quickening the game — hit-ahead passes, decisive shooting, downhill movement — is another way to make Minnesota react. The Timberwolves can dictate their terms of engagement easier in rhythm.

It does not help that the Wolves are scoring 120.8 points per 100 possessions, best in the playoffs, but Denver is shooting 21-for-36 (58.3%) against Minnesota when firing in a possession's first nine seconds and not just because of fast-break opportunities. One quick decision can put the Wolves on their toes:

Denver should not fear contact on the defensive end, either. Edwards is too comfortable. Part of that is unavoidable, since he is the smoothest player alive, but only one of his 10 assists in the series was made under duress. Every Denver double team has been half-hearted. Either commit two to the ball or do not. If they are going to leave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on an island, they might as well dare Edwards to beat them from distance, where he has been an average 3-point shooter. He may well do that, given the heater he is on, so double him harder. Do not give him a full head of steam. Force Towns and Mike Conley to make plays.

The difference is plain as day between when they feign a double on Edwards:

And when they attack him, forcing the ball from his hands:

Easier said than done, but we have seen the Nuggets do it before. Do it once on Friday, at least, and the series will be as close as any could be through three games. Take back your space, and narrow the margins.