MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota forward Taurean Prince effectively ended it, and there was still one quarter to play.
Prince buried a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, then tilted his head on his hands as if to put the Nuggets to sleep. His was one of 19 3-pointers the Timberwolves drained on Tuesday night in pounding the Nuggets, 130-115. The defeat snapped Denver’s winning streak at five, with one more game left on their daunting six-game road trip.
Now 28-22, perhaps Wednesday’s tilt at Utah will help erase the sting of Tuesday’s humbling loss.
Only Nikola Jokic, who finished with 21 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists, produced a noteworthy performance. The rest of the Nuggets were undone by Minnesota’s incessant defensive effort, tireless work on the glass and overwhelming bench production. The T-Wolves’ reserves outscored Denver’s 68-49, and beat them on the glass, 52-46.
“The game was lost in that second quarter,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone of the 39-23 margin. “Obviously, our bench unit that came in, their bench dominated our bench in that first half.”
Karl-Anthony Towns led Minnesota with 24 points and 10 rebounds, followed closely behind by former Nugget Jarred Vanderbilt, who had 18 points and nine rebounds.
“Vando plays like that every night,” Malone said. “… He’s relentless.”
After Jokic, no other Nuggets player had more than 13.
Vanderbilt planted himself on the offensive glass to the start the third quarter. He earned two, two-handed jams off his hustle and motor, then continued pestering the Nuggets on the glass. The Nuggets did themselves no favors as the T-Wolves threatened to make it a 30-point deficit. Despite numerous open 3-point looks, including a handful from new acquisition Bryn Forbes, the Nuggets couldn’t make a dent in the deficit.
Bones Hyland offered a momentary spark off the bench and Forbes finally connected on one from outside, but Prince’s gut-punch 3-pointer seized all the energy from Denver’s comeback. Minnesota carried a commanding 100-78 lead into the fourth.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave Vanderbilt, who the Nuggets traded in 2020, his praise before Tuesday’s tip.
“No, I’m really not overly surprised (at his growth),” Malone said. “It’s easy to have revisionist history. ‘Oh, Jarred Vanderbilt should’ve been playing.’ Alright, well, we’ve got more wins in the West the last 3 years than anybody.”
Still, Malone credited Vanderbilt for his defensive versatility and his overall approach. Motivated or not, Vanderbilt was a menace against his former squad.
As a basic tenet of the Nuggets’ culture, Malone has always emphasized selfless passing at the core of Denver’s attack.
“I learned a long time ago, nothing divides a team faster than poor shot selection, over-dribbling, selfish play,” Malone said prior to Tuesday’s game. “What brings a team together, what unites a team is ball-movement and making the extra pass.”
It wasn’t necessarily selfishness as much as sloppiness that dug the Nuggets a 69-51 halftime deficit against the Timberwolves. The Nuggets turned it over 11 times in the first half, including five from Jokic.
Not even his 12 points and seven assists could help offset all the miscues. Monte Morris’ one turnover proved even more costly, as it ended with Naz Reid soaring over Morris for an alley-oop.
The sequence was even more disconcerting given how well Morris had played as of late.
“I don’t know if it’s really one basketball thing, I think it’s just more the mindset,” Malone said. “I think it’s him settling in, and, ‘OK, listen, no matter who’s in or who’s out, I’m our starting point guard,’ and the confidence that comes with that.”
As many mistakes as the starters had, Denver’s bench was even more disjointed. They were outscored 39-7 over the first two quarters, as Reid and Taurean Prince assaulted the Nuggets’ smaller reserves.
Vanderbilt, perhaps motivated by seeing his former team, was everywhere. His 14 points led all of the T-Wolves’ starters.