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NBA

That Was Violence!

Anthony Edwards holds up seven fingers to indicate a Game 7.
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The narrative oomph of a seven-game playoff series between the defending champions and an ascending challenger is deadened somewhat when the final margins along the way are measured in the dozens. There is a feeling in the insane momentum swings of this clash between the second-seed Denver Nuggets and third-seed Minnesota Timberwolves of heavyweights exchanging haymakers, but without the stirring sight of either contender rooting his feet to the floor in the moment and weathering the blows. The fourth quarter of Game 1 was the last time this series was very close by the scoreboard: In each of the subsequent five games, the team that won the first quarter then extended their lead to double digits by halftime, and won comfortably, with Game 3's eight-point margin the closest the losing side has come to making a contest of a second half. Thursday night's 115–70 bloodbath was the most exaggerated of this pattern; if the phugoid continues Sunday night in Denver, one or the other of these teams may leave the court in a shop-vac.

Game 6 was competitive for approximately five minutes of the first quarter, when the two sides threw back-to-back 9–0 runs at each other, and it was possible to imagine the night proceeding as a genuine contest. Then Minnesota's run just kept going, and by the time Mike Malone used his second timeout to stanch the flow of momentum, his Nuggets were down 26–11 and showing signs of massive organ failure. As a neutral viewer, I was begging aloud in my living room for the Nuggets to please make some effort to take shots in the paint. Turns out this was a trick of perception: The Nuggets actually attempted nine shots in the paint in the first quarter. It's just that too many of them were awful, and several of them disappeared into the palms and forearms and armpits of soaring Minnesota defenders.

However it happened, Minnesota rediscovered the athletic advantages that seemed so insurmountable in the first two games of the series. Their defensive ball pressure, after the game's first handful of possessions, was terrifying; their first-half domination of the offensive glass seemed to sap Denver's will to compete; their various long-limbed defenders seemed to have DRS in their legs for every transition exchange. The intensity of it all made Jamal Murray look like Ramon Sessions, and made blinking, panicking bozos out of Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Denver's reserves were entirely overwhelmed: The Nuggets did not get their first bench bucket until the fourth quarter, and didn't get their second bench bucket until Malone had already thrown in the towel and yanked his starters, with an appalling 10 minutes left on the game clock. His counterpart, a still-seated Chris Finch, emptied his reserves 90 seconds later, and Minnesota's bench immediately extended a scoring run out to 24–0, to make what was already a laugher into a sobber.

The Nuggets appeared to have made some subtle adjustments across the middle games of the series, to negate some of Minnesota's physical advantages. If this preserves some hope of a competitive Game 7, it's worth mentioning that at least some of what created Thursday's slaughter seemed to stem as much from Denver's perplexing abandonment of those adjustments as any particular tactical counterpunches from the Timberwolves. The Nuggets really did settle into passivity in the first half, perhaps convinced that the law of averages would do them a solid and make a couple of their flat-footed three-pointers splash home. The Nuggets wanted to play clean and finish their possessions, but when their early outside shots weren't falling only Gordon seemed to want to take matters in hand, and when he did he dribbled the ball off his foot, leading to a breakaway dunk the other way. It was that kind of a night; the Timberwolves pounced on everything.

"I think if you want to keep the crowd out of it and give your defense a chance, you have to make sure you have a clean game offensively," said Malone before the game, effectively foreshadowing the massacre to come. "They’ve shown time and time again, they can turn you over in a hurry. They can block shots. And that converts into easy points in transition. Highlight dunks. And that’s when this place will just erupt.”

The Timberwolves don't exactly need the transition offense, not if their playmakers have even a sliver of breathing room. Denver generously gave a lot more than a sliver: The sharp double-teams on Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns that seemed to sap the juice out of Minnesota's half-court offense through the middle part of the series were hilariously tentative and half-assed Thursday night; one Defector staffer compared them to "little kids playing with an uncle they're afraid of." In the first half, during those fleeting moments when the game still seemed remotely salvageable, the Nuggets gave off the impression that they expected the Timberwolves to start screwing up or relaxing and to fall back to earth, and while that's not the actual worst bet imaginable, it's certainly a screwy basket for the storing of all of one's eggs.

It's entirely possible—maybe even probable, given Game 6's contours and the alarmingly upside-down plus-minus posted by Denver's starters through the series—that whatever happens from here is up to the Timberwolves. There's something to be said for the specific, cool-headed way they weathered Denver's counterpunch: Finch never dramatically overhauled his lineups, he never shifted the playmaking burdens or introduced any gimmicky defensive looks. Anthony Edwards stayed in the zone, Mike Conley got healthy, Minnesota's role-players kept their heads up, and the Timberwolves now have a comfortable handle on what it is the Nuggets want to do. "We talked a lot today just about getting our edge back, our swagger, playing a little more free and easy," explained Finch, after the game. "It just felt like we hadn’t had our best effort on both sides of the ball yet." Thursday night it all came together, and it produced a damn basketball hurricane. If the Timberwolves have another one of these in them, there may be nothing anyone can do but hunker down and bear witness.

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