Advertisement

Nuggets respond to challenge, show fight as defending champs: 'Guys answered the bell'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Denver Nuggets broke through and won the NBA championship last year in large part due to being hungrier than every opponent, realizing these opportunities are scant.

They can’t replicate that singular feeling, but what every champion acquires through triumph is almost an arrogance, a stubbornness and an unwillingness to fold under adverse circumstances.

Perhaps it was that championship arrogance that kicked in when the Nuggets jumped on the plane to Minneapolis after dropping two home games in stunning fashion, having to sit in their own funk for four days, repeatedly having their worthiness challenged by their coach and being doubted by the basketball world.

It took a while, but the champs finally showed their form Friday inside an electric and party-filled Target Center, delivering a definitive shot across the bow of the Minnesota Timberwolves with a resounding 117-90 win.

That makes three wins in this series for the road teams in three games, and should that trend continue Sunday, the Nuggets will have reclaimed home-court advantage. The prospect of that looked bleak following Monday’s embarrassment, where the hungry Timberwolves attacked the Nuggets as if they were dinner.

The Nuggets produced their best performance of the postseason, in an atmosphere that called for it since this was the biggest game in Minneapolis in 20 years.

Jamal Murray is probably the picture of Nuggets defiance. He’s never made an All-Star Game and wears it. A few years ago, well before becoming a champion, he so incensed Kyrie Irving in going after a 50-point game Irving tossed the ball into the stands to prevent Murray from having the gameball.

Being defiant as a basketball adolescent can be viewed as innocent, but when you’re a champion, visiting crowds want your blood — especially when you’re not suspended. Murray knew he had to respond after he threw a heat pack that landed on the floor in Game 2, which resulted in a hefty fine but no other disciplinary action.

Murray took his new lease on life and gave the Nuggets an extra lifeline, taking the four days of rest on his injured calf and using it to his advantage.

He popped across the floor, took the Public Enemy boos from the crowd and looked like the best version of himself, scoring 24 with five assists and four rebounds. Nikola Jokić will hoist his third MVP trophy to the crowd on Tuesday in a Game 5, and rightfully so, but the Nuggets can’t afford to solely rely on him for inspiration and shot creation.

“Maybe that’s leadership (from Murray), taking pressure on himself, he likes that,” said Jokić, who shook off a slow statistical start to score 24 points with 14 rebounds and nine assists.

Murray, who grew up a Raptors fan, remembers Vince Carter being booed in Toronto following an acrimonious trade from the franchise. It was emotional and ugly, but yet Murray said he cheered for Carter and remembered him having a great game.

It was 39 that day in much lower stakes by comparison.

“I like to cherish that moment,” Murray said. “It just makes you have to lock in and be there for your teammates. I embrace that challenge. I embrace that moment, but probably deserve the boos.”

He was hounded by Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaden McDaniels earlier in the series, and that’s when Anthony Edwards wasn’t in his face. Jokić had to deal with Naz Reid shadowing him up the floor, along with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns to start games.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and guard Jamal Murray (27) slap hands during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Friday, May 10, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray were locked in during Game 3. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It wasn’t necessarily that they played soft in the first two games, but the Timberwolves dictated every term of engagement that it was fair to wonder if the Nuggets would fight back, stick their foot in the dirt and not be moved.

It was why Nuggets coach Michael Malone had a two-minute video cut made of every talking head, every pundit and analyst claiming the Nuggets were done and would be swept, and debated showing it to his team before they got on the flight to Minneapolis.

And it wasn’t just the basketball world, the call was coming from inside the house. Malone looks like he could get in the fight if he could, would get in a fight if he had to, and challenged his team to actually fight.

Heck, he even got into a verbal back-and-forth with a Timberwolves fan Friday night.

“You’re always testing and finding out human nature, and what guys are made of,” Malone said. “Every talking head in this country saying that the series is over. 'The Nuggets are done. It's a wrap. They're toast. Minnesota is a better team.' All the big personalities, you know who they are.

“But I didn't want to show it because most of the time I don't give a damn what they say. But I knew that this would maybe strike a chord deep inside you. … If that doesn't resonate within you as a competitor, I don't know what will, and so, yes, guys answered the bell.”

He asked veteran center DeAndre Jordan for input, and Jordan agreed. Turns out, Jordan put it in a group chat with the team.

Malone wanted to know who still believed, and who could play with force when his team was being physically challenged. If the Timberwolves have the advantage in length and quickness, the Nuggets certainly have it in girth.

Many times, Jokić nailed unsuspecting defenders running around screens to free up space for Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who had a field day of open shots — resulting in the Nuggets shooting 48 percent from 3-point range and 54 percent overall.

The Timberwolves came into Friday’s contest expecting a coronation, and it’s human nature to see why. Their defense was dominant and it fueled their offense in the first two games, but the tables turned dramatically.

It would be difficult for even the most veteran team to block out the praise, particularly after Game 2’s defensive showing that had observers harkening back to the Bad Boys Pistons or Michael Jordan’s Bulls — teams that dominated opponents physically and had them mentally submitting in big games.

A tighter whistle made things tricky for the Timberwolves, who found themselves fussing at the officials and taking their focus away from the sleeping giant who suddenly took some smelling salts.

“I just think our whole, like, energy was right,” Murray said. “That's the main thing we're gonna miss or make shots. We're gonna turn it over. They're gonna score on us sometimes. Each timeout, we came out together, locked in.”

In some ways, this result was predictable, but it planted just enough doubt in the Timberwolves’ minds that the scales of confidence can balance despite Minnesota having a 2-1 lead and a home game coming up Sunday.

But at least for a night, they got their mojo back.

“We’re halfway there,” Malone said. “Got a long way to go.”