It was a good thing the Nuggets were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and their fifth road game in eight days. They started the game by running the Wolves out of the gym, looking exactly like the Wolves should have looked after having not played since last Friday night. Ultimately, the Nuggets weary road-legs caught up to them, and despite a nail-biting, ugly finish, the significantly fresher Wolves were able to wear Denver down in the second half.
The first quarter started embarrassingly for the home team, as the Nuggets ran the floor on misses and makes alike, with the Wolves unable to match their intensity. Kenneth Faried was his usual bouncy self, grabbing rebounds left and right and getting easy shot attempts at the rim. Conversely, the Wolves missed an inordinate amount of easy lay-ins around the basket. This was not an issue that was confined to the first period, but was an unfortunate, recurring theme that permeated the evening.
Just a couple minutes into the second quarter, the Nuggets were shooting an eye-popping 70% from the floor. Hardly any of their shots were forced or legitimately contested, as Denver was still running the floor for layups, tip-ins, and the occasional open three point shot. The Wolves’ second unit continued its recent struggles on the offensive end of the floor, but also brought some sorely needed hustle to the game for Minnesota.
The Nuggets helped the Timberwolves get back into the game towards the end of the first half, reaching the bonus quickly and beginning a parade to the free throw line that allowed the Wolves to take a 51-50 lead into the locker room.
Kevin Love carried his awful shooting into the second half, continuing to miss from all over the court. By the 8:00 mark in the third quarter, however, the Wolves held the lead in free throw attempts by an impressive margin of 24-9. Ridnour, Shved, and Barea all continued to stay aggressive in penetration, causing the defense to collapse and react by fouling. Minnesota again lived at the free throw line, shooting a very solid 30 of 37 from the charity stripe for the game.
The Wolves increased their energy level as the game went on, and the Nuggets’ fatigue thwarted any chance they might have had to stick with the Wolves on either end of the floor in the third quarter and for most of the fourth quarter. Despite Faried’s monster effort (26 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 steals), the Nuggets simply had no answer for Nikola Pekovic and his fresh, well-rested post game. On a night in which Love was about as atrocious as he’s ever been on offense, Pekovic stepped up and played exactly like he did last spring, and exactly how the Wolves are counting on him to play if they are too make a deep playoff run.
The fourth quarter got much, much dicier than it should have. The Wolves would have extended their lead to fourteen under seven minutes to play, but Andrei Kirilenko was called for offensive goaltending on a Pekovic shot attempt. From that point on, the Nuggets slowly but effectively chipped away at the deficit, largely through free throws and three point shots. The Wolves were able to extend their lead to seven points with just over a minute remaining, but the Nuggets cut the lead to just three points and had possession of the ball after Luke Ridnour failed to get the ball in-bounds after a timeout.
The Wolves expanded their lead back to five points after a Kirilenko steal and fast break dunk, but the Nuggets still managed to pull within two points with just 5.4 seconds to play and Dante Cunningham at the free throw line. After Cunningham made one of two shots, the Nuggets had to go the length of the court with no timeouts remaining. With Rick Adelman screaming at J.J. Barea and Cunningham to foul Ty Lawson before he could launch a game-tying shot, Lawson managed to heave an off-balance three-pointer from the top of the key that bounced off the front of the rim, and the Wolves escaped with a win that ended up much, much closer than it ever should have been.
– For as bad as the Timberwolves’ defense was in the first quarter, they actually played quite well overall, save for the last four minutes of the game. The help defense and overall activity was good, but Nikola Pekovic stood out as especially solid on the inside. His positioning and awareness is surprising, and at least on this night was much better than that of his backup, Greg Stiemsma. Pekovic bodies up his counterparts well, and his help defense was consistent and impressive. He also finished with an extremely efficient final line of 22 points (7-10 FGs, 8-8 FTs), 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks.
– Love had a terrible evening, shooting an appalling 3 of 17 from the field, including 0 of 3 from three point range and just 2 of 4 from the free throw line. He did pull down 14 rebounds and only commited two turnovers, but he looked tentative in refusing to shoot open shots in the second half, and let Faried and even JaVale McGee outwork him on the boards at times throughout the game. Given his recent comments in the media, I’m sure Love was feeling a bit sheepish after the game, and I would guess he will be atoning with his off-night with some monster performances in the near future.
– It was interesting to see the clear mis-communication between Adelman and his point guard in the final five seconds of the game. Barea apparently didn’t understand that Adelman wanted him to put Lawson on the line with a two-shot foul before he had a chance to try and tie the game. Immediately after the final buzzer, it appeared as though Adelman was still trying to explain to Barea what he had in mind. Fortunately, Lawson missed a tough, twisting shot, and the issue is moot. But it is something to keep an eye on moving forward, and it will be interesting to see if Adelman always carries the same philosophy on the fouling-the-losing-team-when-up-by-three-with-just-seconds-left strategy that is always so much fun to debate.
– Malcom Lee left the game late in the first half with what the Wolves’ television crew described as a hyper-extended knee. The Wolves can’t afford to have another long-term injury to their paper thin backcourt, so hopefully there is nothing in the way of structural damage.
– The Wolves will travel to New Orleans to face the Hornets on Friday night for the first game in a stretch of four games in five nights. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. from The Big Easy.