Sports

The Nuggets are playing like champions again and putting the Timberwolves on the ropes

MINNEAPOLIS — (AP) — Repeating a championship in the NBA is as challenging as ever with the talent level across the league these days, with the Golden State Warriors the only one to do so over the last decade.

Look at the five teams that hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy prior to the Denver Nuggets last season: the Warriors in 2022, the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021, the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020 and the Warriors in 2019. None of them advanced past the second round the following year.

Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets are one win away from stopping that streak and playing like they're poised to buck that lack-of-back-to-backs trend.

With 40 points and 13 assists from the indefatigable Jokic, the Nuggets stymied the Minnesota Timberwolves again on Tuesday night in Denver to take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series and can eliminate them in Game 6 on Thursday night in Minneapolis.

“They’re playing better than us right now. They’re outplaying us. They’re playing harder than us. They’re getting all the loose balls. Everything is going their way,” Wolves guard Anthony Edwards said. “They've got the momentum, and we've got to figure out a way to shift it back our way.”

Strangely enough, the Nuggets have Minnesota to thank for beating them so badly on their home court in Game 2. The domination on both ends of the court was just the jolt that Denver needed.

“We collectively weren’t playing like the reigning NBA champions. I think we weren’t playing with our usual swagger. We weren’t playing with confidence. We weren’t playing with any aggression. I think you have to give Minnesota a lot of credit, because they had a lot to do with that,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "I thought Game 2 was a great reminder of us needing to get back to who we needed to be offensively and defensively.”

The Warriors in 2017 and 2018 were the only repeat winner in the last 10 years. They made it to the NBA Finals in 2019 and lost to the Raptors, who were ousted in the second round the following season. The Lakers were eliminated in the first round in 2021. The Bucks were beaten in the second round in 2022, as were the Warriors in 2023.

The Nuggets have not only unleashed the staggering impact of the three-time MVP Jokic, but in handing the Wolves their first three-game losing streak of this season they've exposed some cracks in the NBA's leading defense with sharp outside shooting by their secondary scorers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the latest to go off, hitting four of his five 3-point tries in Game 5.

Then there's the defense that Denver presented to the All-Star Edwards after his 44-point game on Sunday. Edwards went 5 for 15 from the floor for 18 points with four turnovers on Tuesday.

“We’ve still got a chance. There’s no let up. Everybody is still here. I think everybody is still engaged," said Minnesota center Naz Reid, the Sixth Man of the Year award winner. "I think everybody wants to make that adjustment or that change to get back on top and be ourselves.”

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TIMBERWOLVES AT NUGGETS

Denver leads 3-2. Game 6, Thursday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN

— NEED TO KNOW: Jokic joked after Game 1 that he would need a “duplicate clone of myself” to help the Nuggets solve the paint defense the Wolves were sending at them behind four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year award winner Rudy Gobert. Jokic had his way with Gobert and whoever else tried to pitch in with a hand up or a body block in Game 5, going 15 for 22 from the floor.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: Michael Porter Jr. The third-leading scorer for the Nuggets during the regular season has been a nonfactor in this series, ceding key fourth-quarter minutes to backup Christian Braun. Porter shot just 2 for 10 on Tuesday.

— INJURY WATCH: Wolves point guard Mike Conley missed Game 5 with a sore Achilles tendon, which he strained on the final possession of their Game 4 loss when he missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds. Edwards clearly missed his backcourt mate, because the Wolves found little cohesion on offense in Game 5. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray was quiet himself in Game 5, likely more a function of Jokic's dominance than his strained calf, which appears to be less of a hindrance as the series goes on.

— PRESSURE IS ON: Edwards. The Wolves are facing elimination by the Nuggets for the second straight year, after being bounced in five games in the first round last season. The “Wolves in four!” chants that broke out before Game 3 at Target Center seem like a distant memory along with the 2-0 lead. If the Wolves can stop their skid on Thursday night, they'll have a puncher’s chance in Game 7 in Denver, but Edwards will have to solve the double teams that are sure to come his way again in Game 6.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

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