Nikola Jokic has played only 16 minutes over the last two games in the hope he will be fresh for the Denver Nuggets’ first playoff appearance in six years.
The strategy might have paid off in a big way, thanks to some help from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Oklahoma City rallied to beat Houston on Tuesday night, giving the Nuggets the chance to claim the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a win over Minnesota on Wednesday night.
Denver (53-28) has lost two in a row since clinching home-court advantage in the first round last Friday, but there was strategy in the losses. A tough grind to finish the year had players dragging, and coach Michael Malone said he took that into account in games against Portland and Utah.
It wasn’t, he insisted, to try to avoid Houston in the second round.
“We haven’t rested anybody in four years,” Malone told reporters. “We had a crazy schedule, we had six games in nine nights, it was unbelievably hard, and all those guys were nursing injuries. We’re playing everybody tonight. For people in Houston and people in Denver to be thinking that we are resting people because we intentionally lost so we could avoid a matchup is very wrong, very erroneous reporting.”
The Nuggets didn’t sit anybody on Tuesday but Malone used a lot of his bench against the Jazz. They were within four points midway through the fourth period but the Jazz went on a 16-2 run to put it away.
Jokic sat out against Portland on Sunday night and was used sparingly Tuesday. He had only two points on 1-of-6 shooting against the Jazz but with a chance to earn the No. 2 seed might play more against the Timberwolves.
Jamal Murray was the only starter to play more than 30 minutes Tuesday. He played 31 while bench players Mason Plumlee logged 34, Malik Beasley played 31 and Monte Morris 30.
The Timberwolves (36-45) have been decent at home despite dropping four of their last five there, including getting routed by Toronto 120-100 on Tuesday night. Minnesota finished 25-16 at Target Center but its play on the road has been lacking.
The Timberwolves roll into Denver having gone 11-29 away from home and are facing a Nuggets team with something to play for.
It’s the second straight season the two teams wrap up the regular season against each other. Last year’s game was a play-in game for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference after Denver went on a tear to tie Minnesota in the standings.
The Timberwolves prevailed in overtime in that game but got beat in five games by Houston in the first round, and they became a vastly different team in the first half of the season. Jimmy Butler wasn’t happy in Minnesota and was finally traded to Philadelphia in November.
On Jan. 6, with the team sitting 18-21, head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau was fired and replaced by interim head coach Ryan Saunders.
Saunders pledged to have the team finish the season playing hard.
“We still practiced, did things that we usually do,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “… Eighty-two games is 82 games, and we have a job to do. Every time we’re here and any time we put our Wolves gear on to work; that was the message. That’s what I expect going forward.”
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