One Denver Nuggets stat pops off the page in dominant Game 1 win

Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

The Denver Nuggets faithful can largely thank their team’s offensive acumen for the great success they’ve had this year in snagging the top seed in the Western Conference, but when it comes to where the credit should go for the Nuggets’ 109-80 Game 1 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday, it should be all about the defense.

According to Joel Rush of Forbes Sports, the Nuggets had the best net rating (+30.4) of all 16 teams in Game 1. Shockingly, no team had a better defensive rating than Denver.

Not only does the number 88.2 jump off the page, but the gulf between Denver’s Game 1 defensive output and the rest of the 16-team playoff field is jarring, with the next closest team, Boston, putting up an impressive 97.1 rating. That’s still nearly 10 points higher than Denver’s.

That kind of discrepancy speaks to a defensive dominance that Denver fans have not exactly come to expect from the Nikola Jokic-era Nuggets. While they have been a bit better on that end this year, allowing just 112.5 points per game, good for 8th in the association, they’re still a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of defensive rating (113.5, 15th) and opponent points in the paint (52.5, 21st).

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves’ offense has been far from a dud, sitting tied for 12th in points per game (115.8), third in field goal percentage (49.0), seventh in pace (101.55), seventh in points in the paint (54.3), and tied for eighth in fast break points (14.7). The clamps that Denver put on a team with this type of offensive talent were quite a pleasant surprise.

In his postgame comments, head coach Michael Malone pointed out that Denver’s 16-3 fast break advantage was a symptom of their tactics to run and tire out a Minnesota team that was fresh off the plane and playing at altitude. He also lauded his team for their preparation and work ethic on the defensive side of the ball.

“It was great defense, but we’re not gonna celebrate. We don’t get too high after a win, and we’re not gonna get too low after a loss,” Malone said. “We have work to do, there are things that can be better, but I just gave our defensive player of the game award to the whole team. It was an outstanding week of preparation, work, and focus, and they took that into the game tonight and executed it.”

Only two of the 12 players that took a shot for Minnesota were better than 50 percent from the field, and the fact that their standout performer was Anthony Edwards, who put up just 18 points on 6-for-15 shooting, says a lot about the kind of night the Timberwolves were having from the top to the bottom of their rotation.

Karl-Anthony Towns was especially befuddled by Denver’s swarming and physical defense, scoring just 11 points on the night, his third-lowest total of the season. The big man couldn’t find space anywhere, and even when he did, the scars of the previous possessions weighed on him and turned open shots into bricks. He even left his one trip to the charity stripe empty-handed, which is a very rare sight for an 87 percent free throw shooter like him.

Every player in Denver blue was dialed into a defensive mindset in Game 1, with strong perimeter defense from guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Christian Braun, and Bruce Brown getting supplemented by tough and physical post defense from the likes of Aaron Gordon and veterans Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. Even Jamal Murray, who’s known more for his offensive exploits, was buying in.

In this new age of high-scoring, long-range three launching NBA offense, there were only 23 games this year where both teams scored fewer than 100 points out of 1,230. It was just the fourth time the Nuggets had held a team below 100 points this season, and the 80 points were 18 fewer than their next-best effort. It was also just the sixth time this year that the Timberwolves had been held to less than 100 points, and their previous season-low had been 88 points.

That shows how impressive it was for Denver to keep Minnesota’s pups to such a low point total; Denver was playing some 1990s-level defense on those boys. They did it from start to finish, holding Minnesota to 23 points or fewer in every quarter, including a masterclass in the third where they allowed just 14 to put the game to bed early like a true No. 1 seed should.