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Nuggets recognize Timberwolves as contender after Anthony Edwards leads comeback without KAT, Rudy Gobert: “We always thought they were gonna be good”

MINNEAPOLIS — The F-bomb seemed to ricochet around the walls and reach every ear in the building, even over thousands of cheering Minnesotans.

That was the sheer auditory power of Michael Malone’s rage timeout. It was the rage timeout of rage timeouts, accompanied by that one jarring word. The Timberwolves’ third-quarter onslaught had carried over to the fourth. Not even Denver’s recently formidable second unit could stop the bleeding against a center on a two-way contract.

Denver did stop the bleeding eventually, of course. But the Nuggets’ 115-112 win Tuesday might’ve been a convincing loss if both rosters were fully healthy. In fact, aside from its utility in pushing Denver (48-21) back into a first-place tie, the win was a somewhat frustrating one in that it won’t be all that applicable to a potential playoff series between these two teams. The Timberwolves were missing enough of their roster, enough of their identity, for it to impact their matchups and scheme.

Instead, the road trip finale was more useful as a reminder: This ain’t gonna be as smooth sailing as last year.

The Timberwolves, to channel Malone’s verbiage, are really freaking good. Better than last year, when the Nuggets sailed to a first-round victory in five games. Same goes for the rest of the West.

“We always thought they were gonna be good,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said.

“They’re really well-coached. They execute really well. They have Ant, who is one of the best players, most talented players, in the NBA right now,” Nikola Jokic said, tipping his cap to Anthony Edwards’ high-effort performance 24 hours after dislocating his finger. “You have Mike Conley, who’s a really good veteran. They just play really well. They play hard. They run their plays with purpose. That’s why they’re good. Even from the (2023) playoffs — they missed a couple guys in the playoffs, too, but they still had really good fight.”

Edwards’ dislocated finger might’ve been the most totally-worth-it injuries of all time, matter of fact. It happened while the Nuggets were cozy in a Minneapolis hotel and the Timberwolves were in Salt Lake City. The 22-year-old posterized Utah’s John Collins with a slam reminiscent of Aaron Gordon’s Christmas day dunk over Landry Shamet. Edwards walked away with his finger in a brace. Collin walked away in concussion protocol. “That was crazy, man,” Gordon marveled. “That was a top-10 dunk in NBA history.”

Edwards was game to suit up for Minnesota’s back-to-back regardless. Even in a matchup that had the looks of a scheduled loss on paper, with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns out. Edwards played close to 38 minutes. He engineered an 18-point comeback as much with his defense as his offense.

“Really, the guy doesn’t have any weaknesses in his game,” Malone said.

While he cooked in the third quarter, the Timberwolves swarmed Jokic and somehow slowed down his scoring pace after a 22-point first half. Six of Minnesota’s players tallied a steal. Five blocked a shot. In the first 11 minutes of the second half, the Nuggets scored 12 points. Malone was naturally displeased with their execution during the slump, but he mostly attributed it to Minnesota’s defense.

“The whole game, it was poor turnovers, dribbling into crowds. And they became very physical, very aggressive,” he said. “That fueled their break. That gave them momentum. That gave them life. … I wouldn’t say we got away from anything; it was just giving them more credit for how hard and physical they were playing.”

“When you’ve got Rudy in there, it’s tough,” Michael Porter Jr. said, “because you have good on-ball defenders, but if they do get beat, you’ve got Rudy in (the paint).”

When Edwards did finally hit a wall without Minnesota’s No. 2 scoring option available, his supporting cast picked him up. Conley and Jaden McDaniels — who missed the playoff series last year — scored 13 points each in the fourth while Edwards didn’t score at all. They nearly pulled off an entirely new comeback from down 107-99 in the last 90 seconds. They were just one Ant basket away from miraculously forcing overtime. But his final game-tying 3-point attempt clanked off the front of the rim, as though he was just a few inches too tired after using every ounce of effort in him during a back-to-back.

His fellow Georgia Bulldog was sprawled out on the floor, reduced to crossing his fingers and hoping for the best. The sure-footed Caldwell-Pope had been knocked off balance while trying to disrupt Edwards’ space, leaving the shot wide open.

“I wasn’t trying (to foul). He kind of just ran through me a little bit,” Caldwell-Pope said after calling Edwards a top-five player in the NBA. “I didn’t know what they were gonna call on that one. But I’m glad he missed it.”

“He missed kind of a similar shot in the playoffs, if you guys remember,” Jokic added.

If they meet again in the playoffs, the Nuggets shouldn’t expect a similar type of series.

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