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Have Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray solved the Timberwolves?

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It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Nuggets and Timberwolves through the first four games of the Western Conference Semifinals. The Wolves won the first two games convincingly in Denver before losing the next two in the exact opposite fashion. 

The series now shifts to Denver in a pivotal Game 5. The Nuggets (-185) are favored over the Timberwolves (+150) by BetMGM, but this is far from over. These are two great teams, and either could advance to the next round.

Here’s where the advantages lay, and who should eventually have the upper hand. 

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Murray was averaging just 12.5 points through the first two games of this series, in large part because he looked like he was fighting through a bad calf injury. 

With a few days’ rest between Games 2 and 3, Murray has looked rejuvenated. He averaged 21.5 points on 50.0 percent shooting from the field and 41.7 percent from 3 in Denver’s two wins.

His drives to the rim have looked a lot better, and he’s getting around screens better. That has made the two-man game between himself and Nikola Jokic much more effective.

Even when Minnesota has known what is coming, it has been helpless to stop it. 

MORE: Why the Nuggets looked done after the first two games against the Wolves

The Timberwolves came into the series with an innovative strategy on how to slow down that two-man game. Rather than having Jokic’s man, Karl-Anthony Towns, help on ball screens, they had him stay completely home on Jokic. Rudy Gobert, who was on Aaron Gordon, would instead be the helper. 

A small tweak has made that strategy ineffective. The Nuggets have been using “ram” screens to increase the space between Jokic and Towns, forcing Towns into more of a help responsibility. 

Jokic has also figured some stuff out on his own. He’s way too smart to use the same coverage over and over on. The Wolves tried mixing things up late in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and he beat every single one of their tactics. 

After some uncharacteristic struggles at the start of this series, Jokic is back to his consistent self. He averaged 29.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists in the past two wins. 

Part of the success that the Wolves had defensively was in allowing Gobert to sag off Aaron Gordon and help out on Murray and Jokic. Gordon has only hit 32.3 percent of his 3s for his career, so that strategy looked good on paper. 

In practice, Gordon has made it untenable. He’s hit a scorching 66.7 percent of his 3s and scored 17.3 points per game, creating his own offense at times and hitting difficult looks. 

The Nuggets have also done an excellent job of getting Gobert switched onto other players including Jokic, Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, which has taken Gobert out of his comfort zone and at times away from good help positioning. They’ve limited the suffocating defense impact that he had in the Wolves’ Game 1 win.

Edwards has played out of his mind throughout this whole series, averaging 33.3 points per game. He dropped 44 in the Game 4 loss despite the Nuggets putting their two best defenders in Caldwell-Pope and Gordon on him. Denver has done everything to let other players beat it, but Edwards has still managed to power his way to the rim or hit extremely tough 3s. 

Edwards has been the best player in this series full-stop. That oftentimes is the difference-maker when teams are equally matched, as they appear to be here. 

Game 4 was a brutal showing for Towns and Gobert. Towns manifested his worst habits, committing bad fouls and getting lost on defense. He was pulled at times down the stretch because of the baffling mistakes that he was making in Minnesota’s defensive coverage. 

As bad as Towns was on defense, Gobert was worse on offense. His passing out of the short roll was atrocious, and he had some very awkward offensive possessions and four missed free throws in nine attempts. 

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