MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets delivered the type of disciplined performance that’s a prerequisite for lasting a long time in the NBA playoffs.
The Minnesota Timberwolves sure aren’t there yet.
Jokic had his seventh career triple-double in the playoffs with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists and the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves 120-111 on Friday night to take a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.
“We didn’t want to give them life,” said Jokic, the two-time reigning NBA MVP who led the league with 29 triple-doubles this season. “We wanted to be the aggressor. We wanted to punch them first.”
Michael Porter Jr. had 25 points and nine rebounds and Jamal Murray added 18 points and nine assists as Denver withstood another dashing game by Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards to send a loud crowd of white-shirt-wearing fans home from another frustrating postseason loss.
“Proud of the group,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “They handled their business like they’re supposed to, like mature teams do.”
Edwards scored 36 points to raise his series total to 95, Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points after totaling only 21 points over the first two games and Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Wolves, but a defensive lapse here and a rushed 3-pointer there was enough to seal their fate against this Nuggets team finally healthy enough for another run at the NBA finals.
“Our decision-making on offense just kind of let us down,” coach Chris Finch said.
Bruce Brown had 12 points to lead Denver’s 29-10 edge in bench points, and the Nuggets shot a hard-to-beat 57% from the field.
Game 4 is here Sunday.
“No disrespect to the T-wolves, this is about us, but we don’t want to go back to Denver,” Malone said.
With the Nuggets holding their first 2-0 lead in nine playoff series under Malone, their message from the coach was to keep the throttle on full and not give the underdog Wolves extra confidence.
The Western Conference’s top team shot like its seeding depended on it and outjumped the Wolves for just about every long rebound. The Nuggets had two 9-0 runs in the first half and started the second quarter by making 12 of their first 16 shots on their way to a 13-point lead.
Edwards, who had 41 points in Game 2 for the franchise playoffs record, single-handedly brought the Wolves back with the kind of starburst only players like him are capable of.
After a bad pass by Towns was picked off by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Edwards hustled for the block and quickly converted a Euro-step layup on the other end. The Wolves kept up the momentum and cut the lead to 61-55 right before halftime. They were still within six points at the end of the third quarter.
The Wolves won their play-in game here a week ago on the backs of Towns and Gobert, the unlikely big-man pairing they created when former Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly bolted for the same job in Minnesota and swung a blockbuster trade for Gobert.
The Wolves attacked the basket better than they did in the first two games, and Towns drew Jokic’s fourth foul with 5:51 left in the third quarter, but the 7-foot Serb is just too skilled — and too much of a load — to get beat that way.
“The offense looks a little different when ‘Joke’ isn’t out there, but we’ve been making it work,” Porter said. “We’ve just got a lot of dudes who can do a lot of different things.”
Finch, asked before the game about Jokic’s impact on making space for Murray and his shot, took a subtle swipe at how he feels Jokic — who has 14 fouls in the series — is officiated.
“He does a really good job of screening, and moving and screening at the same time, those types of things,” Finch said in his best deadpan.
Gobert made light at his introductory news conference last summer of Finch’s allegations of his illegal screening with Utah.
Nuggets: Caldwell-Pope had 11 of his 14 points in the second quarter. ... Murray, who went 10 for 20 from deep in the first two games, was 1 for 6.
Timberwolves: Towns, who shot 8 for 27 from the field in the first two games, went 10 for 17. He’s 5 for 16 from 3-point range in the series.