Well, that’s all folks. The defense of the Denver Nuggets’ first championship is over as the Nuggets fall 98-90 to a Minnesota Timberwolves squad that just wouldn’t quit. The game was lost in the third quarter where Denver went up by 20 but only finished up by 1, and Minnesota had every answer in the fourth as a tired Nuggets squad just couldn’t get stops or make buckets when it counted. Denver held Anthony Edwards to 16 points on 6-of-24 shooting but lost anyway as they could not contain Karl-Anthony Towns or Jaden McDaniels who each had 23. After owning the glass in the first half, the Nuggets lost the rebounding battle for the game despite Nikola Jokic having 19 rebounds to go with his 34 points and 7 assists. It was a poor second half from Jokic though, who played 47 minutes and was obviously exhausted – Denver just had nowhere else to turn. Jamal Murray had 35 points on 27 shots but did most of his damage in the first half, while MPJ and Aaron Gordon played good first-half defense but combined for just 11 points in the game and were absent from most of the big closing moments. Christian Braun had the bench’s only 5 points, and the pressure on the starters to get it done was just too much. Denver ran out of gas in the second half and the Timberwolves chased them down and feasted. The dreams of a back-to-back championship for Denver are over, and just questions remain with a long summer to dwell.

Game Recap

Rudy Gobert affected MPJ’s first shot and blocked his second, while Porter returned the favor blocking Rudy under the rim. Jamal Murray opened the scoring with a corner three, Karl-Anthony Towns made a shot over Rudy, but the shots were all tense to open the game. MPJ got another block this time on Jaden McDaniels, but Mike missed a 3 the other way and Ant made a bucket the other way. McDaniels stuffed an Aaron Gordon dunk, but Nikola Jokic broke a 1-for-8 shooting streak for Denver with a driving bucket. MPJ worked hard on the glass while Conley swished a corner 3 while Murray missed his. Murray botched a dunk, Nikola and AG couldn’t connect on a lob, but a KAT 2 was answered by a KCP 3 and a Jokic floater for a 12-10 early Minnesota lead. Murray off the glass tied it up, before MPJ missed from deep and Naz Reid made one for Minny. Murray made up for a bad turnover with a tough paint step-back as Denver went on an extended run. KAT’s layup was matched by a Gordon put-back dunk, and Murray’s back-to-back 3s put Denver up 24-19 after 1.

Jokic and MPJ came out for the start of the second quarter with the bench, and Jokic hit a 17-foot shot to start the scoring while noted defensive stopper Reggie Jackson blocked a last-second three-point attempt from Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Reggie was called for an offensive foul but Jokic got the strip on the other end and MPJ tipped in a Christian Braun miss, then buried a deep two to make it 30-19. Denver was on an extended 16-0 run after Braun played great defense on Ant, grabbed the tipout from Edwards and got to the line. Gobert made free throws to end it, Murray missed a tough layup, and Gobert made another trip to the line after earning fouls against Denver’s guards. McDaniels hit a 3 to cut the lead to 34-25, then scored over Christian Braun after committing an uncalled offensive foul. Braun missed a 3, Anderson hit free throws, and Murray finished a layup to stop a 7-0 Minnesota run. KCP and Murray both made long twos to get it to 43-29. Minnesota fought back from the free throw line as Denver wouldn’t give them anything easy, Denver had a dunk from Gordon and a tough putback from Jokic through traffic. A KAT 3 and a stepback closed the deficit back to 10, and Denver missed some good looks before Jokic tipped in his own miss and finished a 3-point play. A Conley transition layup got blocked by Braun, Murray’s response the other way went in, and Denver went into the half up 53-38.

Jamal Murray opened the second half with a floater, then buried a 3 to make the lead 20 early. Gobert made a dunk, McDaniels hit a three but Denver kept Ant in jail for the first several minutes of the half until his transition bucket cut the Denver lead to 12. Murray missed a couple of shots as well as a deep ball and Denver struggled on offense, with MPJ bricking a three while Conley made two to cut it to 59-53 on a 15-1 run. Braun made a last-second floater to stop the bleeding briefly, but Jokic missed another 3 and an Anthony Edwards dunk in transition made it a 4-point game. Denver had just 3 points in an 8 minute stretch as Denver couldn’t made from deep or in the paint, laying a brick house on the rim. Jokic finally restored some semblance of order with a couple of paint buckets, but it was too late and a 14 point quarter from Denver coughed up 14 points of their halftime lead as Ant’s last second bucket had Minnesota trailing by just 1, 67-66.

Minnesota made two paint buckets sandwiched around Jokic’s missed three to take the lead for the Timberwolves. Jokic banked one on off the glass, but McDaniels answered with a floater. MPJ made a huge three, his first of the game, but Conley answered with one of his own. Jokic hit his first three as well (in 8 tries) to close the game to 2 for Denver. Gobert made a 12-footer, then Aaron Gordon got stuffed at the rim while McDaniels got free throws the other way. Jokic buried another 3, Jamal made a stepback 2 but Denver couldn’t stop the Wolves from scoring. Murray made a Jokic-assisted 2, but the parade of Timberwolves to the foul line continued. Jokic had his shot blocked by Reid, who then had a putback on the other end to put the T-Wolves up 89-82. Jamal Murray’s turnover into an Ant three made it a 10 point Minnesota lead and had Denver looking at the exit. Jokic missed a three out of a timeout, made a couple of free throws, and the Nuggets scrambled for a couple of jump balls they could not win. Jamal missed from deep in the final 90 seconds, hit a layup and forced a turnover that turned into a Jokic finish for a 5-point game, but KAT’s putback dunk sealed it. Denver in the second half only scored 37 points and left the postseason tasting the bitter ashes of being the architects of their own defeat. Final score 98-90.

Final Thoughts

– That wasn’t fun. I don’t just mean for fans – it didn’t look like Denver had much fun at all from April through the end of the year. Whether Denver used too much energy to chase the one seed and home court, or the litany of injuries just caught up to them, the first round against the Lakers looked like a Denver team struggling to find the gas pedal that used to be easy for them, and in this series there were too many blowouts for a team with as much pride as the Nuggets showed last year. A 20 point collapse in a Game 7 is not something that happens to a champion, and it speaks to how hard they had to work all season to get there. It’s been a long few years for everyone, whether it was rehabbing from injury and then having a long championship season like Murray and MPJ, having to defend every position every minute like Aaron Gordon and KCP, or having to carry the load and do everything for the Nuggets like Nikola Jokic. I hope this summer helps everyone heal up and find their basketball joy again, because they’re going to need it. Title chases are hard, and if Denver wants to be in the mix next year the starters need to find their laugh again as well as their competitive spirit.

– The bench that everyone thought wasn’t going to be enough this year, wasn’t. When Calvin Booth talked about the team he was building over the summer, he was very proud of his youth movement and said, “If it costs us the chance to win a championship this year, so be it.” Well it certainly didn’t help, because none of the new players got playoff minutes and even one of Booth’s success stories, Peyton Watson, was benched for this Timberwolves matchup. Denver missed the veteran presence of Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, and rostering three nearly-unplayable rookies in Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson cost Denver the depth it needed to not run the starters into the ground. This isn’t the early 2000s – the salary cap makes it harder than ever to build anything resembling a dynasty. It’s the sixth straight year that there won’t be a repeat conference champion in either conference, so when you have the chance to go all the way and choose the long road for a capped out team, you’d better be right. Time may prove Booth’s model correct, but right now Tim Connelly is smiling all the way to the bank after beating the team he and Booth built together.

– Denver has to get better, but they already have so much in house. The Nuggets just need a little more. Someone to take the pressure off of Murray in the regular season so he can get the maintenance rest he obviously needs, and who can run a competent offense in the playoffs. Someone who can play a big man role off the bench, because this year Denver had no one they could rely on and wore Aaron Gordon down by using him in his playoff role during the regular season to compensate. A reliable bench scorer. Maybe that’s Strawther or Braun, maybe Watson can increase his shooting consistency and therefore his playability in year 3. When the starters are cooking there is no one better in the NBA than the Nuggets, but when the stove is on fire there isn’t anyone on the bench who can put it out and serve up a decent meal. That has to change. Last year, Bruce Brown was not the best regular season option but he cooked in the playoffs. He showed up under the bright lights and made it so every bucket wasn’t a starter problem. Denver needs to rebalance that roster a little bit, and their options to do that are limited. That’s what happens in the new NBA: you have to solve problems every year with more and more limits. Hopefully the Nuggets can overcome theirs, because the core of what works for Denver really works. They just need more of a margin for error.

– Enjoy the summer, Nuggets fans. The squad is one year removed from a title, have the best player in the world, and most of the pieces that make him a title winner. This sucks, it will continue to suck, but for as long as Nikola Jokic calls Denver his second home this squad has life. So enjoy yours while they recover and make some choices about how to get back to another title.