Nuggets vs. Timberwolves score, takeaways: Nikola Jokic’s 40-point masterpiece

Nikola Jokic scored 40 points, added 13 assists and led the Denver Nuggets to a 112-97 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of their second-round NBA playoff series on Tuesday night. The Nuggets have won three games in a row to take a 3-2 series lead, and the reigning champs are one win away from a return trip to the Western Conference finals.

Jokic received his third MVP trophy in a pregame ceremony, and he went out and played like it. It was the first time Jokic scored 40 points in these playoffs and marked his first career playoff game with more than 35 points, 10 assists and five rebounds. Jokic had 16 of his points in the third quarter as the Nuggets built a double-digit lead, and he had no trouble consistently scoring over Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

The Timberwolves were without starting guard Mike Conley in the Game 5 loss. Anthony Edwards, meanwhile, had his worst game of the series, finishing with 18 points on 5-of-15 shooting.

The Wolves will try to keep their season alive at home in Thursday’s Game 6. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 5.

It’s Nikola’s league, we’re all just living in it

Nikola Jokic just became the first player in NBA history to score or assist on 70 total points without committing a single turnover in a playoff game. He did that against the No. 1 defense in the NBA, featuring a four-time Defensive Player of the Year. When asked after Game 1 how the Nuggets could handle Minnesota’s trio of centers in Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid, he responded that Denver would need to “have a duplicate clone of myself.”

Well, one Jokic was good enough for the Nuggets on Tuesday. He finished the game with 40 points and 13 assists. He had as many missed shots (seven) as he had rebounds. What’s most impressive here is the way in which he did it. The Timberwolves through every imaginable coverage at him. He torched Gobert one-on-one (he made eight of his nine shots with Gobert as his primary defender). When they put Towns on him with Gobert as a roamer, he killed them as a passer. Naz Reid and Kyle Anderson got shots against him in both one-on-one and double situations. Nothing mattered.

In his last six playoff series, Jokic has faced a four-time Defensive Player of the Year in Gobert twice, a former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in Anthony Davis twice, an All-Defense pick in Bam Adebayo and a former No. 1 overall pick in Deandre Ayton. None of them have had any answers. There are no answers. You might be able to beat the Nuggets by slowing down everyone else and making all of your own shots, but there’s no strategy, no defender, no solution whatsoever to Jokic. The MVP is unstoppable.

Anthony Edwards finally hits the wall

Speaking of unstoppable stars, Anthony Edwards certainly looked like he fit that bill entering Game 5. He was averaging 32.1 points per game on 56% shooting this postseason before Tuesday. He’s passed every test the playoffs have thrown his way thus far, and Tuesday was by far the biggest. The Timberwolves had just lost two in a row at home. Now they were playing the defending champs on the road without starting point guard Mike Conley. Minnesota’s one hope of winning was a huge Edwards game.

And he just didn’t have it in him. Edwards finished the game 5-of-15 from the floor for 18 points. He racked up nine assists without Conley, but Denver played him to pass. He frequently saw a second defender when he tried to navigate screens. His jump shot, which has gone in more this postseason than the numbers suggest that it should, finally cooled off. He managed to get to the line, which saved his night offensively, but otherwise, it was a real struggle against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

It’s easy to forget that Edwards is still only 22. Players that young aren’t supposed to be burdened with expectations this high. That Edwards looked ready for the moment for so long is a testament to what an outlier he’s been this postseason. But Jokic is at the absolute peak of his powers. He’s figured out how to solve any defense. Edwards is still a few years away from that point, and that’s OK. Every superstar has a moment or two like this. That won’t make it hurt any less if the Nuggets close out the series in the next two games, but it’s just a fact of NBA life. The 22-year-old rarely makes it through an entire postseason unscathed.

Has Denver found its new Bruce Brown?

Depth has been Denver’s biggest weakness throughout this championship window, and losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green only exacerbated that issue. The Nuggets chose to build sustainably. Rather than importing veterans to solve their bench issues, the Nuggets trusted their youth. This postseason, that has meant the emergence of Christian Braun, who was in the rotation during last spring’s title run, but has emerged as an essential sixth man this time around.

The Nuggets have now won the Braun minutes in all five games against the Timberwolves. They are a total of +27 with him on the floor, a particularly impressive feat when you remember how many of his minutes come with Denver’s shakier bench lineups. He closed Game 4 ahead of Michael Porter Jr., and he played 28 minutes in the Game 5 victory.

Braun isn’t Brown’s equal as a shot-creator or individual defender, but he’s bigger and has established himself as a lethal cutter and transition threat. His energy is infectious and fits the Nuggets to a tee. Aaron Gordon might be Jokic’s favorite assist-recipient, but Braun is quickly emerging as another top target.

Finding bench players that fit into this particular team is harder than it seems. The Nuggets don’t play offense the way other teams do. There’s far less traditional pick-and-roll. Players aren’t asked to just hang around the corners as much. Braun has mastered his role in that system in his second year, and that has helped keep Denver’s bench afloat in this series.

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