Can the big-ball Timberwolves guard in the playoffs? The early returns suggest not

For the second time in two games, the Timberwolves fell short in Friday’s Game 3 against the Nuggets because they couldn’t get stops. A team that when at its best in the regular season was a defensive juggernaut now looks helpless on that end of the floor in the first round of the playoffs.

Part of the credit for that belongs with Denver, an offensive annihilator featuring the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who can all score 10 points in the blink of an eye. It’s nearly impossible to contain all three of them.

Which made it all the more troublesome when the Nuggets got easy offense in Game 3 from Bruce Brown simply sizing up Karl-Anthony Towns at the top of the arc, and driving by the big man for easy buckets at the rim. Those are the types of plays that turn good offensive nights for a team into great ones, and vice versa for the defense.

“I thought I saw a lot of 1 on 1 beats,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “You gotta buck up and guard a little better all across the board.”

That’s difficult for Minnesota to do at times given their multiple-big-man approach. The big question since the Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert to pair him with Towns in the front court has always been whether Minnesota could match up against opponents in the playoffs.

The first three games of the Denver series suggests not. Minnesota is surrendering 125 points per 100 possessions with that tandem on the floor, a massive number at anytime of year, but particularly harmful in the postseason.

Some of the issues lie in transition, as Minnesota simply struggles to get back on a consistent basis, particularly when 40 percent of the lineup consists of two lumbering 7-footers. But then there are the intricacies.

With Gobert guarding Jokic, Towns is consistently left on someone he doesn’t match up particularly well against defensively. The Brown duel highlighted that flaw, but even if Towns is on Aaron Gordon or Jeff Green, he’s giving up open 3-pointers or simply has to play far enough off his man that Denver always has a release valve to kick out to should someone like Murray dribble himself into trouble on any given possession.

And the Timberwolves have looked foolish on countless interior screening actions in the paint, which inevitably end in lobs resulting in Gordon dunks. It’s a losing playoff formula to allow as many stress-free buckets as the Wolves have in this series. Because those are all in addition to Denver’s big three making difficult shots, as they’re wont to do in pivotal moments.

“When you’re chasing those guys all night long. It wears on you. They’re a good team at being kind of methodical at that. Jokic just feasts on one small mistake. One small move,” Wolves guard Mike Conley said. “They’re able to get detached from us a little bit and guys are coming off getting pull-up shots, getting in the paint and Jokic doing what he does in the paint. Just tip your hat to them at that point. They executed when they needed to.”

Denver is shooting 52 percent from the field through three games, and 42 percent from three-point range — both top-three numbers among the 16 playoff teams.

The Nuggets are good, and the Timberwolves simply can’t match up, just as so many people predicted.

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