Nuggets-Timberwolves preview: Nikola Jokić, Anthony Edwards and the ultimate chess match

The Western Conference’s second-seeded Denver Nuggets (57-25) will face the third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves (56-26) in the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. This is a rematch of a first-round series from last season, when Denver defeated Minnesota in five games on its way to the championship.

The defending champions cruised a little too much in the penultimate game of the regular season, losing to Victor Wembanyama's 22-win San Antonio Spurs, which is how they landed the No. 2 seed and not the top spot in the Western Conference. And that is why they find themselves on the same side of the second-round bracket as the Timberwolves, a team they have called their "toughest series" of last year's title run.

The Los Angeles Lakers were no cakewalk in the first round this year, either. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co. led every game at the half and four by double digits. Denver's patented execution and inevitability still sealed the series in five games. For as much as the Lakers made the Nuggets work, holding them well below their season scoring average, Denver's playoff defense did the same to L.A.

It helps to have a starting lineup that played more meaningful possessions together than any other five-man unit in the NBA during the regular season and the first five games of the first round. Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope outscored the Lakers by 11.2 points per 100 possessions across a majority of a high-paced series, according to Cleaning the Glass.

It also helps to have Jokić, the soon-to-be three-time MVP, who averaged 28.2 points (on 59.1% shooting from the field), 16.2 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game in the opening round, even though Davis — the self-proclaimed "best defensive player in the league" — was lurking on the other side of the basketball.

The Nuggets did not escape the first round unscathed. Murray went against the wishes of Denver's medical staff to play through a left calf strain — and hit his second game-winner of the series — in Game 5. Caldwell-Pope also played through a left ankle sprain on the same night. Both are worth monitoring.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - APRIL 28: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves slam dunks the ball ahead of Bradley Beal #3 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of game four of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Footprint Center on April 28, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Timberwolves defeated the Suns 122-116 and win the series 4-0. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Similarly, Minnesota stumbled against the Phoenix Suns on the final day of the regular season, which is why the Timberwolves did not finish with the same record as the Nuggets and why they do not have home-court advantage in this series. (The Wolves owned the division record tiebreaker against Denver.)

Minnesota exposed Phoenix in a first-round sweep. The Suns' regular-season performance against the Timberwolves led (ahem) many to believe Phoenix's offensive firepower — specifically the shotmaking of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal — would force a somewhat offensively challenged team (Minnesota's 114.6 points per 100 possessions rated 17th during the season) to succumb on that end.

Not so, since the Timberwolves have yielded the league's best offensive rating of the opening round (123.2 points per 100 possessions). That is thanks in large part to Phoenix's porous defense and in larger part to Anthony Edwards, who is realizing his superstar powers before our eyes. He averaged 31 points (on 51/44/84 shooting splits), 8 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in the series — all better than his season averages. More than that, Edwards ripped the torch from Durant's hands and smiled doing it.

Edwards also teamed up with Jaden McDaniels to contain the Suns' explosiveness on the wing. They were backed by soon-to-be four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who denied everything else. Minnesota's league-best defense — 2.2 points per 100 possessions better than anyone else in the regular season — translated to the playoffs in ways that made you appreciate Karl-Anthony Towns all the more.

Denver and Minnesota tied the regular-season series, 2-2. Towns missed the final three meetings with a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee, Gobert missed one of Minnesota's two losses, and Murray missed one of Denver's two losses, so drawing any grand conclusions from the regular season is a fool's errand.

Denver scored fewer than 100 points in only eight games this season, and the Timberwolves delivered two of those defensive performances, including the Nuggets' third-lowest scoring total (89) of the year. For the record, Denver finished 0-8 when it did not reach 100 points and 7-17 when it did not reach 110.

Jokić was tremendous against Minnesota all season, averaging a 33-12-4 on 58/40/70 shooting splits. Gobert's defense was the only other constant, at least in the three games he played. Edwards' inconsistency yielded 26 points (on 48/23/82 shooting splits), 4.5 assists and 4 rebounds per game.

DENVER, COLORADO - APRIL 10: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets boxes out Rudy Gobert #27 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the third quarter at Ball Arena on April 10, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Who will win the battle of the big men? (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Nikola Jokić vs. Rudy Gobert

Gobert, the game's most decorated defensive player, matched up opposite Jokić, the game's most dominant offensive player, far less often than you might imagine this season. Probably because Jokić was just as great against Gobert (31 points on 13-for-21 shooting in 11 minutes, according to the NBA's tracking data) as he is against everyone, and Minnesota head coach Chris Finch preferred to leverage Gobert's help instead.

Wolves forward Kyle Anderson actually spent the most time on Jokić during the regular season, largely because Towns, who drew the assignment in last year's playoff series, was not available. Anderson could not hold Jokić in check, but the Nuggets scored only 99.4 points per 100 possessions in the 13 minutes they were matched up. And that is the point of freeing Gobert to protect the rim against everyone else.

The same was true once the Wolves committed to defending Jokić with Towns in last year's playoff series. Over 26 minutes, Towns held Jokić to 35 points on 32 shots, and the Nuggets scored 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Neither of those numbers jumps off the charts, but it is enough to give Minnesota a chance, so long as Edwards can carry the offense to a degree that it can keep pace with an absolute juggernaut.

Then again, Jokić has a way of figuring his way out of any box, and Towns can only contain anyone for so long. How often does Jokić bring Gobert into the action, attack him directly or find windows the 7-foot-1 Frenchman cannot clean in help defense? This real-time decision-making makes Jokić so fun to watch. An equally talented defender who counters his every chess move makes the match that much more thrilling.

Aaron Gordon's shooting

Gordon's ability to space the floor could disrupt everything Minnesota wants to do. Gobert will dare him to shoot, choosing to protect the paint from lobs to Gordon, drives by Murray or cuts from anyone else. Even if Gordon can make Gobert think about his perimeter shooting, it might be enough to open some gaps in Minnesota's defensive armor — or make the Wolves rethink their strategy against Jokić entirely.

Gordon's shooting, which had crept close to league average from distance, took a step back this season, when he shot 29% on 1.9 3-pointers a game (his fewest attempts since his second season in the league). He was just 2-for-7 from deep and 3-for-11 from outside the restricted area in four games against the Timberwolves. His best game against Minnesota came when both Towns and Gobert were sidelined.

If Towns' 7-foot, 248-pound frame can keep Jokić from backing into advantageous offensive position and Gobert can contain Gordon to the dunker's spot, the Wolves would be pretty pleased to put the series in the hands of Murray and Porter. Easier said than done, particularly as it pertains to Jokić — and even if done, there is no guarantee Murray and Porter do not deliver. That is the problem the Nuggets present.

Nuggets in 7

Wavering on who to pick in this series is the ultimate respect to the Timberwolves. Edwards, McDaniels and Gobert are that special defensively; Edwards is that close to making the league his own. But this is Denver, the best executing team we have seen since the peak Golden State Warriors. The Nuggets scored 162.5 points per 100 possessions — almost a guaranteed bucket — in three clutch situations against the Lakers. As good as Minnesota's defense is, Denver's offense might be a tad better.

And when in doubt, go with the team that boasts the best player. It is Jokić. It could be Edwards.

Denver Nuggets (-190)
Minnesota Timberwolves (+155)

Game 1: Sat., May 4 @ Denver (TBD)
Game 2: Mon., May 6 @ Denver (TBD)
Game 3: Fri., May 10 @ Minnesota (TBD)
Game 4: Sun., May 12 @ Minnesota (TBD)
*Game 5: Tue., May 14 @ Denver (TBD)
*Game 6: Thu., May 16 @ Minnesota (TBD)
*Game 7: Sun., May 19 @ Denver (TBD)

*if necessary