Nuggets have no answers for Timberwolves in historic Game 6 loss: ‘They destroyed us’

MINNEAPOLIS — Michael Malone walked into the Denver Nuggets locker room at halftime of their wayward Game 6 on Thursday night. In one hand was a stat sheet. He then looked at his team and asked about a positive in what would become one of the historic playoff losses in NBA history. He talked about Minnesota’s field goal percentage. The Timberwolves were shooting 42 percent from the field at the time. He talked about Minnesota’s 3-point percentage. The Timberwolves were at 30 percent.

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He asked his roster if he told them those would be the percentages before the game, would they be acceptable?

The answer was a unanimous yes.

“I agree,” Malone said. “So let me tell you why we’re getting our asses kicked. You’re not taking care of the ball. You’re not rebounding the ball. We’re playing with no physicality and no toughness.”

There will be a Game 7 in Denver on Sunday in what has become a great Western Conference semifinal because Minnesota defeated the Nuggets 115-70 Thursday night at the Target Center. The Timberwolves were able to do that — as Malone told his team at halftime — because they were tougher than the Nuggets. The Wolves outplayed, outrebounded and defended better than the Nuggets.

If Thursday night was Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! the Denver Nuggets played the role of Glass Joe. For three consecutive games, the Nuggets were the team taking the fight to the Wolves. At the end of Game 5 at Ball Arena, the Timberwolves had slumped shoulders and bad body language. At the final buzzer, Minnesota forward Karl-Anthony Towns limped off the floor and into the locker room. Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards said that Denver star Nikola Jokić, who turned in a historic Game 5, deserved his flowers.

This series seemed all but over, which makes Thursday night’s Game 6 result shocking and fascinating at the same time. Heading into the game, the Wolves didn’t seem to have much fight left. Even if they summoned the fortitude to force a Game 7, nobody expected a 45 point spread.

But here we are, heading to a seventh game in a series that’s featured a little bit of everything. Now, after the incredible high of Game 5, when Jokic reached the stratosphere, the Nuggets are going to have to rebound from playing one of the worst playoff games in NBA history. Just how historic? Thursday marked the Nuggets’ fewest points in a playoff game. No defending champion has ever lost by more points in a playoff game.

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“They punked us in Game 2. They punked us tonight in Game 6,” Denver guard Jamal Murray said. “We didn’t come to play tonight, and we knew that elimination games are the ones that are the hardest to win.”

The Nuggets’ locker room after Game 6 was a quiet and thoughtful space full of players with their share of nicks and bruises. Murray’s calf has long been an issue for the Nuggets. On Thursday, he shot 4 of 18 from the field on his way to 10 points. He could not get to the basket, had no lift at the rim and no explosion off the dribble. Jokić’s epic Game 5 masked his co-star’s struggles. The reality is that for much of this series, the balance between Murray and Jokić that makes the Nuggets special has not been there.

Aaron Gordon sat in his stall, scrolling his phone, a thick bag of ice wrapped around his right shoulder. He’s been a warrior this series, and has often been Denver’s second-best player. Game 6 is the first time since Game 2, however, that the Timberwolves were able to muzzle his overall impact on both ends of the floor.

Jokić sat in his sweat-soaked uniform and iced most of his lower body. He led the Nuggets with 22 points on Thursday night, but he was far less effective than he was in Game 5. To be fair, that performance isn’t replicable from game to game. But Jokić didn’t shoot the ball well. He didn’t defend well. The Timberwolves sent unpredictable double-teams at him most of the night.

Jokić is someone with outstanding emotional balance. He’s never going to get too high or low in a situation. When Malone emptied his bench early in the fourth quarter, Jokić stood on the sidelines for the remainder of the game, taking in the historic beatdown, because he wanted his body to stay loose for a postgame lift.

He called Thursday night a “great loss” because it was one that was so lopsided that the Nuggets have no choice but to face it and figure things out for Game 7.

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“This isn’t something that we can just flush,” Jokić said. “They beat our ass. They were better than us in every segment of the game. We need to accept it and take it. And then we need to try and be better the next time. When you lose by 45 points, it’s not something that happens every day. So we have to accept it and learn from it.”

The overall maturity that Denver showed after Game 6 was notable. There was no running from the loss, although you can’t run from a loss like Thursday night’s. Murray, Jokić, Malone and Reggie Jackson were all accountable, even with the tough questions. The collective mood was one of understanding. Friday is likely to be a rest day, while Saturday will likely bring film and a hard practice.

Denver’s title defense hasn’t come easy for a number of reasons. The competition has been much better this time around, even with the Los Angeles Lakers, a team the Nuggets have mastered. They understand the Wolves are a team designed to match up with them, which is why the Nuggets are far from shocked this series is going to a deciding game.

The Nuggets know this was a loud loss, as Game 2 was. But Game 3 was a loud win for the Nuggets, as was Game 5. This series has undergone significant momentum swings and there have been multiple occasions where each team has looked to be in control. Each team has won two road games. If you looked at this matchup on paper before the series, a seventh game seemed possible.

The Nuggets know their task is simple, but not easy: They have to beat Minnesota once. Knowing this has come down to a single game makes digesting the blowout of Game 6 a lot easier.

“It’s obviously disappointing to get down by 50 in a playoff game,” Malone said. “That’s never an enjoyable experience. So we have to go home and get back to playing the way we did when we won three straight games. I have no doubt that we’ll be ready to do that on Sunday.”

Doing so means recognizing some of the basketball reasons that Thursday night happened. They must identify and dissect the consistent double-teams and extra bodies the Wolves are sending at Jokić. Sometimes, the Timberwolves doubled on the catch. Sometimes, they waited to double until he put the ball on the floor. Sometimes they doubled with a guard. On others, they brought another big man.

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In Game 5, Denver employed the same kind of strategy with Minnesota star Anthony Edwards, and the Nuggets never allowed him to get comfortable. In Game 6, Jokić took Edwards’ spot in that regard.

Yet, so much of Thursday night was Minnesota playing with the right amount of desperation and the Nuggets not meeting that level. This was curious because a win on Thursday night would likely have given Denver close to a week off before the start of the Western Conference finals. That would have given the Nuggets time to rest Murray’s calf, because Murray’s health is their biggest team-wide issue. Given all of that, the Nuggets must be disappointed the Wolves simply outworked them on Thursday.

That’s what the Nuggets know they need to own: They were “punked” for a second time in this series. The Nuggets must regroup for a Game 7 that will either extend or end their season.

“I think we need to allow this to sink in for us,” Jokić said. “They beat us. They destroyed us and now we have to go back and learn from it.

“We need to give them respect, you know? We actually went up 9-2, and then from there it was a one-team show, and we have to learn from that.”

(Photo of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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