Midway through the third quarter of last night's second game of the Wolves-Nuggets series, the scribes and talking heads in the media section were grumbling about what a horrible spectacle it was. Sure enough, Kevin Garnett had missed four shots in the first 90 seconds, many from point-blank range, and six and a half minutes into the quarter, Denver had outscored Minnesota by the grand total of 4-3. Elegant it wasn't.
But it was at precisely that moment that Timberwolves fans should have been rejoicing. Game Two was obviously the pivotal contest of this series. Had the Nuggets pulled out a victory, as I said yesterday, all the ghosts of playoff failures past would have come out of the closet to haunt the Wolves as they headed to Denver. Instead, with the Wolves launching bricks with the inept alacrity of a Three Stooges film, the Nugs could only shave a single digit off a 14-point halftime deficit. This stretch paved the way to a Wolves' victory that essentially cinched the series, because Denver isn't about to capture four of the next five games.
Regarding that ugly third quarter, the Strib's Patrick Reusse opined that, "The Wolves will take credit for stout defense, but Denver's loss of composure had much more to do with it." But that assumes no relationship between Minnesota's D and the Nuggets' discombobulation. Recent history would indicate otherwise. Coming into this series, the Wolves' hadn't allowed more than 90 points in nine games, and had held opponents to a 41 percent or less field-goal percentage in 14 straight tilts. That doesn't happen unless a team's defense is able to impose their will on the other team.
But let's say Reusse's right, and, as he put it, Denver unilaterally engaged in "lousy ballhandling [that] was only outdone by its horrendous shot selection." Consider the context: The Nuggets knew this was a make or break game, and that they were down 14 points with only a half left to play. How did they get into such desperate, error-prone straits?
The answer is a second quarter in which the Wolves limited them to just nine points (while racking up 22), on 4 of 17 shooting from the field. And unlike the third quarter, there should be no debate that this game-changing period clearly stemmed from the methodically coordinated aggression and efficiency of Minnesota's defense.
What's remarkable about the Wolves' second quarter suffocation is that the team's two defensive specialists, Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson, only played four minutes apiece, a mere third of the period, and less time than bench players such as Michael Olowokandi, Fred Hoiberg (eight minutes each), and Wally Szczerbiak (five minutes). In all, ten different Timberwolves played a part in forcing seven Denver turnovers (versus just one assist) on defense. Add that to the first half of the third quarter and you find that Denver scored a grand total of 13 points in 18 and a half minutes of action. That's a performance at least on a par with the Spurs, Pistons, or any other of the league's most tenacious defensive units. And it puts a stark punctuation on what has become increasingly apparent throughout the season: The entire Wolves' roster has embraced the accurate notion that defense is the hallmark of legitimate championship contenders.
To gild this rosy scenario even further, the Wolves' offensive is more talented and multi-faceted than the only three teams that were stingier in reducing an opponents' field goal percentage this year--San Antonio, Detroit, and Houston. Another reason for the Denver's sorry offensive display is that the Nuggets wore themselves out trying to prevent the Wolves from scoring off the high pick-and-roll play and from putbacks on the offensive boards, as happened in Game One of the series. As the Nuggets' star rookie Carmelo Anthony put it, "We were too focused on our defense to get going offensively."
Yet when Denver extended its big men and rotated its guards to shut off the pick and roll, the Wolves merely swung the ball to a wide-open Latrell Sprewell on the wing, who buried seven treys en route to a 31-point performance. Pair that with Sam Cassell's 40-point eruption in Game One and consider that KG, the league's MVP, who racked up more points than any other player in the game this season, has yet to lead his team in scoring this series, and you see what the Nuggets are up against.
Dallas or (more likely, now) Sacramento is sure to produce a sterner test for this club in the second round. But it is a very good sign indeed that neither the Mavs nor the Kings do ugly--gritty, sweaty, defensive-oriented ugly--with the passion and consistency that Flip Saunders' squad continues to produce during this most eminently satisfying, and lengthiest, season in franchise history.