There was a whiff of “Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man” to Thursday’s matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Both teams pour in points at near-elite levels and neither can reliably stop anybody, despite being helmed by head coaches — Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, Mike Malone in Denver — hailed as defense-first types. Both teams have been forced to work their way through a challenging late-season slate without a top wing contributor — for the Wolves, All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler; for the Nuggets, rising star shooting guard Gary Harris — lost to injury at an inopportune time.
And, despite more than a few brutal defeats and blown opportunities on both sides, both teams find themselves fighting for their lives in the Western Conference playoff picture in the season’s final week, thanks in part to the brilliance of their third-year centers.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic entered Thursday on an absolute tear, averaging just under 25 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and 2 1/2 blocks-and-steals per game over his past 14 games, shooting 56 percent from the field and 51 percent from 3-point land as he tried to will the Nuggets into the West’s top eight for the first time in five years. Minnesota All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, for his part, has shouldered similar responsibility since Butler’s injury for his team’s hopes of breaking a 13-year postseason drought, averaging nearly 25 and 13 in the 15 games heading into Thursday — headlined by a franchise-record 56 last week — while shooting 54 percent from the floor and 47 percent from deep.
It’s an oversimplification to say that these teams’ fates rest on which of their ascendant big men can best assert his dominance when it matters most, but it’s not much of one. On Thursday in Denver, in a one-possession game in the final minute, only one of them was on the court. And that mattered.
With just under 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Nuggets clinging to a two-point lead, Jokic screened for guard Jamal Murray in the high pick-and-roll. He popped to the 3-point line and, guarded by a recovering Gorgui Dieng, went straight into a dribble handoff with swingman Will Barton, triggering a switch.
Barton pulled the ball back out, guarded by Dieng, as the shot and game clocks wound down before crossing from left to right, stepping back to create space and lofting a long 2-pointer that wound up clanging off the front rim and caroming off the backboard … straight into the big right paw of Jokic, who overpowered the attempted box-out of Wolves wing Andrew Wiggins to tip the ball back up and in, giving the Nuggets a two-possession lead with 4.3 seconds left.
One missed Jeff Teague 3-ball later, Denver had held on for a gigantic 100-96 win that kept the Nuggets’ hopes of a postseason return alive.
Jokic had an uncharacteristically inefficient offensive night, missing 14 of his 20 field-goal attempts and five of his six 3-point tries. The Serbian big man did dish a game-high nine assists against just two turnovers, though, and he pulled down 14 rebounds — none bigger than that last one.
“You’re not always going to have a pretty game and make all your shots and get out and run or run your offense cleanly,” Malone said after the game, according to Gina Mizell of the Denver Post. “You have to find ways to win these types of games. How do you do that? You rebound the ball. You get key stops. And you come up with big plays on the offensive end.”
Aiding the Nuggets’ efforts in doing so down the stretch: the fact that Towns wasn’t there.
After picking up his fourth and fifth fouls fighting for rebounds with Jokic and Paul Millsap, Towns bit on a Jamal Murray pump fake late in the shot clock, got in the shooter’s airspace and fouled out with 1:46 to go in regulation.
“I didn’t think it was a foul,” Thibodeau said after the game, according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “Did not think it was a foul.”
Minnesota held a 93-92 edge when Towns hit the bench. Murray’s free throws put the Nuggets up for good, as they outscored the Wolves 8-3 following Towns’ exit to take the win.
“That probably was the difference, at the end of the day,” Towns said after the game, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It’s frustrating to lose any game, especially down to the wire. Nothing we can do now. We can’t go back and change what happened. We can’t change the outcome.”
“You saw a desperate team in that last minute,” said Taj Gibson, who scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, according to Krawczynski. “They came up with a lot of loose balls. That separated the two teams.”
That’s about all that separates them, right now. Minnesota and Denver both now sit at 44-35, with the Wolves in eighth place and Nuggets in ninth by virtue of holding the head-to-head tiebreaker … for the moment. Minny’s taken two of three from the Nuggets, but they’ll meet one more time — on April 11, the last day of the season, in a game that could prove to be for all the marbles.
The Nuggets have won four straight, and the Wolves have lost four of six, and that’s helped turn the middle and bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket into a meme-worthy clusterflump:
Denver, Minnesota and the No. 7-seeded New Orleans Pelicans all have three games left this season. The Wolves appear to have the softest landing, finishing against the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies before the finale against the Nuggets. Denver takes on the still-mathematically-alive No. 10-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and the playoff-bound Portland Trail Blazers prior to traveling to the Twin Cities. Anthony Davis and company wrap up against the tanking Phoenix Suns, the just-trying-to-get-healthy Golden State Warriors and a Clippers team that could have nothing to play for on the season’s final day.
It’s a mess, really, with the chaos all the more amplified because seemingly everyone who’s not the top-seeded Houston Rockets is sort of spinning out. The Warriors have a raft of injuries and just got smoked so badly in Indiana that their head coach is questioning whether they even care. The Blazers just watched Damian Lillard suffer an ankle injury so severe he had to be carted out of the arena. The Thunder and Pelicans are .500 in their last 10 games; the Spurs are 6-4 in that stretch, but have squandered a pair of golden opportunities to punch their postseason ticket.
Everything’s kind of nuts right now, and in circumstances like that, bang-bang foul calls and missed box-outs can tilt everything … or, at least, create an environment in which everything can get tilted. After Thursday night, Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN both peg Denver’s odds of finishing in the top eight at slightly better than a coin-flip; FiveThirtyEight’s projection system has them just south of 50/50 &dmash; not great odds, but after booting so many chances over the past few weeks, the Nuggets will take ’em.
Those same sites still have the Wolves as a better than 80 percent bet to land in the bracket … provided they take care of business, which they should be able to, should they get Butler back in the fold for these final few games. If they can’t, though — if their leader’s not quite ready for prime time upon his return, if Wiggins (a nine-point, six-rebound, three-assist virtual no-show in Denver) doesn’t shake awake, if Towns can’t stay down and stay in the game — the sides and the seeds can flip, and the Wolves could find themselves on the outside of the postseason looking in … perhaps at a team that looks an awful lot like them.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• This isn’t the Augusta return we all were expecting from Tiger
• Heat’s Olynyk earns insane bonus in just two minutes
• As Manziel eyes comeback, scouts have 1 big demand
• Kevin Iole: McGregor’s violent outburst could end his UFC career