at DENVER NUGGETS
Tip-off: Thursday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
Denver and Minnesota each need to play every game like a must-win as the final Western Conference standings take shape.The Denver Nuggets have very little margin for error, as they currently reside outside the playoff picture in the West. So when they trailed the Bucks by eight in the final minute at home on Sunday night, it seemed like they had sealed their own fate, resigning themselves to the draft lottery. Instead, they mounted what would seem like a near-miraculous comeback to tie the contest and then win in overtime. With just over a week remaining in the regular season, the victory left them one game back of the Pelicans for the eight seed, and 1.5 games back of the Timberwolves. Minnesota has tumbled in the standings since losing star SF Jimmy Butler to a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely, and is now in danger of falling out of the playoffs if they're not careful. The Wolves are 5-5 in their last 10 entering Thursday night's road trip to Denver, and the status of PG Jeff Teague is also uncertain after he left a game last Friday and then was sidelined for a blowout loss to the Jazz on Sunday. The Nuggets are without one of their best players, too, as SG Gary Harris, the team's second-leading scorer, is also out indefinitely with a knee injury.
Considering Utah is one of the teams that Minnesota is fighting for playoff positioning, the no-show on Sunday in a 121-97 loss was not a good sign. The team has been without Butler for weeks now, but also not having Teague in the starting lineup had them looking discombobulated. While the lineup skews big without (and even with) Butler, PG Tyus Jones is undersized as Teague's replacement in the starting lineup, and Utah's backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell combined for 44 points. Jones was solid on the other end with 15 points and four assists, and normally third-string PG Aaron Brooks had 12 points (and five fouls) in 16 minutes. SF Andrew Wiggins had 23 points, six rebounds and four assists. But he took nine more shots than any other Wolf, which is probably not the recipe for an efficient offense. His development is not where the organization hoped it would be by now. C Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points and seven boards, but matched PF Nemanja Bjelica with a plus-minus of minus-21 that was worst among the game's starters. PF Taj Gibson only took seven shots in 34 minutes to finish with six points. SG Jamal Crawford's shot-making abilities were needed with the depleted lineup, but he made only three of 10 shots for seven points. He had a much better night on Friday, when he dropped 24 on the Mavs.
Without Harris, second-year SG Jamal Murray takes on an even bigger responsibility in the Denver offense than the sizeable role he already had. On Sunday, he delivered. Murray finished with 27 points, including six in the final minute of regulation that helped his team tie the game. It was his 12th consecutive game scoring at least 15 points. He was plus-26 on the night, a staggering 15 points better than any other player on either team. But the team's real star on the night—and its star in general—was C Nikola Jokic, who dominated with 35 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. It seems like Denver still hasn't totally figured out how to best channel his talents, but that hasn't stopped him from carrying the team on a regular basis. Joining Murray in taking on an expanded role in Harris' absence is SF Will Barton, a sixth man by trade who has moved into the starting lineup. He made up for a tough shooting night against Milwaukee with 10 rebounds at the three position. PF Paul Millsap joined Jokic in stuffing the stat sheet in the frontcourt, finishing with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. On Friday, he had 36 and nine in a one-point win over the Thunder. He missed a large swath of the season with an injury, and his initial return didn't provide quite the boost the team would have hoped. But with huge games in back-to-back wins, it looks like he is rounding into form. Starting in Harris' place is no-name SG Torrey Craig, who brings unexpected energy and athleticism to the floor. Veteran PG Devin Harris gets solid minutes off the bench.