How the Timberwolves’ defense is devouring the Nuggets in 2024 NBA Playoffs

Put yourself in the shoes of a 6’4 ball handler who can ignite like a flame and burn nearly any defensive coverage at will. What would be your worst nightmare — the absolute worst-case scenario you could face?

The ideal antidote to everything in your scoring repertoire would be length. Imagine a 6’9 lanky wing with a 7-foot wingspan trying to crowd your space and limit your peripheral vision with active hands and long arms. One defender with that kind of profile is already hard enough to deal with.

Now, add another defender to the mix. Someone shorter (6’5), but with a bigger height-to-wingspan differential (6’9 — plus-4). Except for the fact that he’s a bit smaller, this extra defender can virtually pass off as the initial defender’s identical twin — both lanky, rangy, sporting similar hairstyles, and even wearing the same type of headband.

Can you fully imagine yourself not only having to deal with both of them exchanging individual reps on you — but also, both of them jumping on you the moment you cross the half-court line?

If you can, you just put yourself in the shoes of Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray in the possession below:

That was just one example of the kind of defensive attention Murray has been getting throughout his team’s series against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There’s a caveat that shouldn’t be ignored: the ailing calf he strained during the Denver Nuggets’ Game 4 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. To pretend he’s playing fully healthy would be dishonest. But that doesn’t take away the credit from the Wolves, and the way they’ve tailored their gameplans to focus on limiting the Murray-Nikola Jokić-Michael Porter Jr. trio, with Murray so far the most impacted (in two games, he’s averaging 12.5 points while shooting 29.2% on two-point shots, 25% on threes, and has taken only five free throw attempts, on a 36.5% True Shooting mark).

Wolves assistant coach Micah Nori said as much when he before Game 2 even happened took the time to explain to Wolves fans the broad plans for each of the aforementioned main options. The one for Murray, in particular, was almost exactly followed in the possession above:

The Wolves are proving to be quite the immovable object to the Nuggets’ unstoppable force. To put a halt to a generational offensive player with ignitable co-stars and a supporting cast that can play off of their advantage-creation capabilities requires an equally generational defender, fellow high-level stoppers who can put out other fires and also prevent them from being ignited in the first place, and schematic connectivity across the roster.

This confluence of factors has been manifested in the Wolves, who posted the best defense in the regular season in terms of opponent points per game (106.5) and opponent points scored per 100 possessions in non-garbage time (108.9 — 6.7 points better than league average, per Cleaning The Glass). Getting efficient shots against them has proved to be a tough task; opponents shot an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 51.7% against them all season long, which also topped the league in terms of opponent eFG%.

In six games so far in the playoffs, they’ve limited the Phoenix Suns and the Nuggets to a combined 98.7 points per game and 107.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time. They’re hitting a level of defensive nirvana at the most opportune time — and they’ve done so by relying on their tried-and-tested formula of hard-nosed defense, physicality, toolsy skill sets, and a coaching staff that prepares them for every situation and opponent.

The tone was set from the very first possession of this second-round series:

Besides Anthony Edwards’ dogged defensive effort against Murray, you’d probably notice a few things that revealed the Wolves’ hand in terms of scheme. As expected — and in a return to something they themselves tested out during their first-round series against the Nuggets last season — it wasn’t Rudy Gobert guarding Jokić; it was Karl-Anthony Towns, with Gobert roaming off of Aaron Gordon.

The reason for this alignment is two-fold:

  1. It allows Towns to stay close to Jokić, preventing him Jokić from making decisions as the release valve and, in some cases, getting touches on the roll altogether (which also entails having personnel capable of navigating over screens at the point of attack).
  2. It places Gobert in the role that’s primarily fueled him to a fourth career Defensive Player of the Year award: protecting the rim as a help-side roamer, discouraging lobs or kick-outs, and covering potential cutters and drivers.

The Wolves used their battle against the Nuggets last season as a field test of sorts to see if this approach held any weight. They almost assuredly witnessed the Lakers try it themselves with their Rui Hachimura/Anthony Davis tandem (even if that attempt was possibly overhyped and flawed in its execution).

But they’ve used every data point they gathered over two seasons and created a near-perfect scheme to combat the Nuggets’ dependence on their offensive lifelines — which, in a sense, answered the dilemma Coach Nori presented in terms of trying to make Jokić either a scorer or a passer:

More often than not during this series, this scheme was able to make Jokić into neither a scorer nor a passer — but instead, a passive observer:

Note the difference whenever Towns faltered and dedicated too much attention toward Murray around ball screens — which allowed Jokić to dictate half-court possessions:

If the short-term goal wasn’t to completely eliminate Jokić from the equation, it was at the very least to do whatever they could to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible — courtesy of doubles from the top, one pass away — and then having faith in their rotations and overall defense on a string:

While the series isn’t over yet, it feels as if the Wolves unleashed the culmination of their planning for these scenarios, and maybe even the ultimate potential that former-Nuggets (and now-Wolves) executive Tim Connelly put them together for. Even Porter wasn’t spared, with good reason: out of the Nuggets’ big three scorers, he is the one who arguably poses the most danger of running rampant at any given moment — all he often needs is to see one or two threes go in.

Nori’s explanation for tempering Porter was simple:

The operative phrase in the clip above: doing one’s work early. Occasionally, top-locking Porter whenever he attempts to come off screens off the ball denies him the ball altogether; at the very least, top-locking and jamming his path toward pin-downs and split cuts delays actions for him greatly and allows the defense to enact proper measures to take away his looks around the screen.

The Nuggets may still score some other way — but more often than not, they’d prefer someone else taking the shot instead of lighting a potential wildfire in Porter:

But even though the Nuggets’ big three were the primary focus of the Wolves’ game planning, praise of it would be too narrow if it only mentioned that specific aspect of their approach — just as narrow as if only Gobert was credited for their otherworldly defensive performances.

While Gobert is essential, it is a testament to their depth, preparedness, and overall chemistry that even without Gobert — unavailable in Game 2 due to the birth of his child — they still managed to erect an absolute wall around the Nuggets’ offense and held them to 88.9 points per 100 possessions in Game 2.

Up 2-0 and with the series heading toward their home court, the Wolves have snatched the driver’s seat from the Nuggets by crashing their well-oiled offensive machine. They’ve made it an uphill climb for Denver — damn-near insurmountable, even. I won’t put it past Jokić and his brilliant basketball mind to find answers to this defense, as well as Murray finding his groove and Porter getting loose and hitting multiple rhythm threes.

But it’s looking awfully like the Wolves are the team of destiny in the Western Conference this season — not because it was foretold, but because they’re willing it into existence.

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