Timberwolves’ offense falls short in pivotal Game 5 loss to Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Tony Nguyen | Denver Nuggets
May 15, 2024

The NBA’s three-time Most Valuable Player went unconscious in Game 5. With the Minnesota Timberwolves-Denver Nuggets series lead on the line, the Nuggets and their top player would not be denied. In the third quarter, Jokic pushed the Denver lead to double digits behind a stellar 16-point quarter individually.

Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone was thoroughly impressed with Jokic’s performance heading into the fourth quarter, saying, “He’s looking to score right now. Forget about playmaking.” While Jokic’s otherworldly feel as a passer typically fuels the Nuggets to winning, it was clear Tuesday night was his night. The Nuggets’ big man tallied 35 points through the first three quarters.

Even with Minnesota’s collection of big men to throw at the Joker, he could not be stopped. Denver feasted on Karl-Anthony Towns in the pick-and-roll game. Jokic bodied the smaller Naz Reid at the rim. Then, Nikola Jokic gave Rudy Gobert his absolute best. The Serbian big man knocked down ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. His touch, footwork, and shotmaking were just frankly unstoppable, even for the best defender of this generation.

While the league’s best player powered the Nuggets’ offensive attack, the Timberwolves offense simply could not keep up. Suspect spacing paired with a lack of a truly dominant facilitating guard forced the Wolves to drop the pivotal Game 5. After a tremendous 2-0 series start, the Timberwolves are on the brink of elimination as they now trail the series 3-2.

Timberwolves offense falls short

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) and forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) in the first quarter during game five of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For a majority of this postseason, Anthony Edwards has propelled Minnesota’s offense to greatness. However, in Game 5, the Wolves’ best player just wasn’t himself. Denver effectively slowed down Ant-Man when the Wolves needed him most. On the night, Edwards shot just 5-15 from the floor en route to a disappointing 18-point performance.

The bigger story for Minnesota’s offense is the overall performance of the group. Even in Game 4 when Edwards went off for 44 points, the Wolves still struggled as a unit. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple. Denver limited the Wolves’ efficiency in the pick-and-roll game. The absence of timely passing stands out with Jokic oftentimes playing at the level of the screen.

Not only did Edwards fail to turn the corner around Jokic at the level of the screen, but Minnesota also struggled to hit the roller in stride. Minnesota’s offensive struggles come as a direct result of adjustments the Nuggets made in this series. The most effective way to demonstrate the effects of Denver’s game planning is by contrasting how the Wolves found success in Round 1 to how they aren’t doing so in Round 2.

Contrasting Round 1 and Round 2

The Phoenix Suns in Round 1 dared anyone not named Anthony Edwards to beat them. The Suns shrunk the floor and tried to shut off driving lanes. As a result, the Timberwolves’ role players were allotted easy catch-and-shoot opportunities against an inferior opponent. In the second round, the Nuggets have flipped the script. Rather than shrinking the floor on Ant and aggressively tagging Rudy Gobert on his rim dives, Denver is staying home on shooters.

As a result, the Timberwolves’ role players haven’t been able to contribute much since Game 3. Even with Edwards’ growth as a facilitator, he’s still no Luka Doncic. The Nuggets has given inside position and small passing windows to Gobert. Gobert was a perfect 7-7 from the floor on Tuesday night, but Denver’s bet isn’t against his efficiency, it’s against his volume.

The Nuggets are willing to bet that the Wolves just simply won’t utilize Gobert enough to hurt them substantially. So far they’ve been correct. A majority of Gobert’s touches have resulted in dunks or fouls drawn. The trade-off, though, for the Nuggets is limiting the Timberwolves’ three-point volume and the KAT and Ant combo from finding their rhythm.

Here is a quick statistical comparison for Minnesota in Round 1 compared to Round 2.

Round 1

– 118.25 team points per game

– Edwards: 31.0 points per game

– Jaden McDaniels: 14.3 points per game

– Nickeil Alexander-Walker: 12.3 points per game

Round 2

– 101.2 team points per game

– Edwards: 30.2 points per game (two 40+ point games and two sub-20 point games)

– Jaden McDaniels: 7.0 points per game

– Nickeil Alexander-Walker: 8.2 points per game

Denver’s defensive game planning has kept the Wolves’ wing contributors at bay. Additionally, Edwards has had two sub-par showings for his standards this series Denver’s extended pick and roll coverage. Minnesota’s clearest solution is hitting Gobert as much as possible. The Wolves need to dare Denver to adjust their scheme by allowing Gobert to continue drawing fouls and throwing down easy dunks. If Minnesota doesn’t adjust, this series feels like a wrap.