Minnesota Timberwolves Become Favorite in Western Conference With Dominating Win

The Western Conference came down to a three-team tie between the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves on the final day of the regular season. Tiebreakers gave Oklahoma City the top seed, Denver the No. 2, and Minnesota the third seed. 

The Nuggets are the defending NBA champions, and because of that status and their experience, they emerged from the cluster as the betting favorites to win the Western Conference. 

That was then and this is now, with the Nuggets down 0-2 to the Timberwolves after two losses at home, and a second loss that was a wake-up call for everyone. Denver is not close to being the same team they were a year ago, and Minnesota is far better than anyone thought heading into the playoffs.

Following Minnesota’s Game 1 win, the point spread for Game 2 still had the Nuggets as 5.5-point favorites. That jumped up to 7 points when word got out that Minnesota big man Rudy Gobert was going to miss the game because of the birth of his son.

Gobert’s absence didn’t matter. The Nuggets experience didn’t matter. The defending champ swagger didn’t matter. What mattered was a suffocating defense by the Timberwolves, a total breakdown in discipline by the Nuggets, and proof that presumed MVP Nikola Jokić is human.

After losing Game 1, Denver was still the betting favorite to win this series, and ultimately win the West. Minnesota is now a huge -525 favorite to knock out the defending champs, and they are even odds favorites at +100 to win the Western Conference. The Thunder are +300, and the Nuggets have fallen to +650.

This is just the second time in the history of the Timberwolves that they’ve advanced beyond the first round, and they have never advanced past the conference finals.

Minnesota’s Defense is Thriving

On Monday, the Timberwolves defense held the Nuggets to just 35 points in the first half, and 15 in the second quarter. At the end of the game, Denver’s 80 points stood as a season low. And this happened without Gobert, the favorite to be named Defensive Player of the Year.

What is working so well for Minnesota are the defensive rotations, the aggressive way they defend the man with the ball, and good old-fashioned hustle. They play like a young and hungry team that senses there is something special in the air.

“We got some really good defensive efforts on the ball, off the ball, physically, execution of the game plan, and doing it over and over again,” said head coach Chris Finch. “The physical and mental toughness was great. We really went after it on defense.”

Denver’s Offense a No-Show

While Minnesota’s mental and physical toughness was obvious, the absence of those traits in the Nuggets was just as obvious.

From the second quarter on, Denver played desperation basketball. They were trailing by 26 at half-time, and the deficit was as many as 34 points in that first half.

“After that first quarter, there was basically only one team on the floor,” said Jokić.

Denver shot 34.9% from the floor and had just 16 assists on the night, as well as 16 turnovers. Jamal Murray was 3-of-18 shooting, and in an embarrassing moment — and one that might bring punishment from the NBA — he threw a heating pad on the court in frustration while the game was in play.

Jokić scored just 16 points, his lowest total in his last 26 playoff games. Against the Lakers in the first round, Michael Porter Jr. averaged 23 points per game. On Monday night, he scored 9.

In 11 playoff home games in 2023, Denver was 10-1. In five home games this year, they are 3-2. The big question for the defending champions as they head to Minnesota for the next two games: will they make it back to Denver for at least one more?

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