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Timberwolves storm back without entire frontcourt, but Nuggets survive on Michael Porter Jr. late scoring

MINNEAPOLIS — What happens when you take away the Minnesota Timberwolves’ entire frontcourt?

Not much, evidently.

Rendered inept for most of the second half, the Nuggets’ offense finally woke up for the last seven minutes in a 115-112 win over the shockingly short-handed Timberwolves.

There was no Karl-Anthony Towns. No Rudy Gobert. No Naz Reid. No matter. Anthony Edwards scored 30 points as the Timberwolves undid an 18-point deficit with stout defense as Denver spiraled for the entire third quarter and the first five minutes of the fourth. Then the starters checked back in, built an eight-point lead with two minutes remaining and survived an impressive 3-point barrage from Minnesota.

Edwards front-rimmed an open three at the buzzer. Michael Porter Jr. made a pair of free throws with 7.6 seconds left to double the lead.

“Top five for me, man,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said of Edwards. “He’s a dog. He stays after it no matter what it is. I seen him play all that defense today, too, which I didn’t expect. But his game is gonna continue to get better as he gets older.”

But the Nuggets (48-21) held him scoreless in the fourth, and with the win, reclaimed a one-game lead over Minnesota and moved back into a first-place tie with Oklahoma City atop the Western Conference. Denver and Minnesota play each other twice more in the regular season. The Nuggets must win both to earn the two-way tiebreaker.

“We started sending a body at (Edwards),” head coach Michael Malone said. “Obviously, one guy trying to guard Anthony Edwards is a challenge for anybody in the old NBA. So we started throwing bodies at him, so now he’s playing against a double-team.”

Nikola Jokic, who hasn’t played a game without an assist since Jan. 2, 2020, needed until the 6:50 mark in the fourth quarter to register his first of the night. It came at the Nuggets’ nadir, trailing 93-89 with five second-half points in 17 minutes to that point. More importantly, it fittingly signified a turning point. The assist set up a Porter 3-pointer and started a 10-0 run that included seven consecutive Porter points. On the next possession, Jokic found a cutting MPJ for a dunk.

“As soon as I checked in, we run a play for me; I hit a three,” Porter said. “And then from there, it was just kind of a steady attack.”

Porter scored 13 of his 26 points in the last seven minutes. Jokic finished with 35 points, 16 rebounds and just the two dimes. He scored 22 in the first half after Kyle Anderson, playing small-ball five, picked up three fouls in the first three minutes. Two-way player Luka Garza was forced to guard Jokic alongside Minnesota’s starters as the two-time MVP went into attack mode. Jokic and Aaron Gordon demolished the Timberwolves on the glass in the first quarter.

Minnesota native Zeke Nnaji was out due to lower back pain, and Malone elected to go the playoff-simulation route by playing Gordon at backup five. The ninth-year Nuggets coach had hinted that he “could go really small depending on who’s available for (Minnesota)” during his pregame news conference, indicating that DeAndre Jordan might’ve played if Gobert had. Instead, Gordon amassed eight points and eight rebounds in as many minutes to start the game with Jokic — but only added six and three the rest of the night. He turned the ball over four times.

Jokic, meanwhile, was suddenly a witness to Denver’s offense at the beginning of the third quarter. He didn’t attempt a shot until 5:26 into the half, while the Timberwolves quickly unleashed a 15-3 run. They double-teamed his post touches with increasing intensity. Anderson didn’t pick up another foul the rest of the game. Even Garza knocked Jokic off his spots a couple of times.

“We just kind of came out lazy and we had a tough time scoring,” Porter said. “We’ve just gotta be more focused when we get up big.”

“To finish up the road trip 3-1 is outstanding,” Malone said. “Not always gonna be pretty. I thought in the first half, we did a nice job. Third quarter, just came out with no urgency, and they became the aggressor and had us on our heels. … You have to put teams away, and that’s really something that we really have to get better at. We’re building leads, but now how do we sustain that lead and not just give it all right back?”

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