Tonight, the most important game of the NBA season takes place in chilly Minnesota. The 46-35 Nuggets take on the 46-35 Timberwolves. The winner makes the playoffs. The loser goes home. Denver is riding a six-game winning streak on the back of Nikola Jokic. They are in this position because of an impressive win over Portland, 88-82. The Timberwolves have newfound life due to the return of their superstar, Jimmy Butler. Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and co. will look to bring playoff basketball back to Minnesota for the first time since 2004.
Both teams will be fully healthy for the most part. Gary Harris returned on Monday and should be playing in full force tonight. Taj Gibson exited Monday’s game with a neck strain and is expected to play tonight.
Nikola Jokic vs Karl-Anthony Towns
Over the last six games, Nikola Jokic has been a man on a mission. Over that stretch, he has averaged 23.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks. To go along with this, Jokic and the Nuggets have made a marked improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The Nuggets typically rank at the bottom of the NBA in defensive rating, but over the last six games, they ranked 17th (105.9). This goes along with their impressive offense, spearheaded by Jokic, ranking fourth in the NBA (112.6).
Karl-Anthony Towns has been just as prolific as Jokic over the last six, maybe even more. He has averaged 26.8 points and 14 rebounds, posting a 9.2 plus-minus. Jokic and Towns will go at each other all night. Both of them have the versatility to score down low in the post, take their man off of the dribble, or shoot the three. Jokic is the primary playmaker in the Nuggets’ offense and Towns is the primary scoring option.
Jimmy Butler vs Jamal Murray and Gary Harris
After Jimmy Butler went down on February 24th with a meniscal injury, the Timberwolves struggled mightily. Butler is their sole defensive stopper on the team, along with being a big-time scorer. In the 17 games Minnesota played without Butler, they went a poor 8-9 and nearly fell out of the playoff race. Their defensive rating plummeted to 22nd in the NBA (109.6). In the last two games since Butler has been back, the Wolves’ defensive rating has skyrocketed to third in the NBA (93.9). Their offensive rating was also fifth in the NBA (114.8).
Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are not a prolific defensive backcourt. Nobody on the Nuggets has a great defensive rating, but Murray (109.6) and Harris (107.4) certainly do not have the easiest time stopping opposing guards. Jeff Teague is not a great scorer but Jimmy Butler is. One of the two will need to step on defense big time tonight. On the other side of the ball, the duo has no problem, combining for 34.3 points per game. Jimmy Butler will take one of them; the other will be defended by Andrew Wiggins or Jeff Teague, two poor defenders. Guard play could be the difference in this matchup
Despite their road woes, the Denver Nuggets pull out a tight victory in Minnesota, denying the Wolves a trip back to the postseason for another long year. 112-108 Denver.
Ben Pfeifer is the Managing Editor of the Colts for Full Press Coverage, the AFC South Division Editor, and head NBA editor. Want to continue the discussion? Contact Ben Pfeifer on Twitter @Ben_Pfeifer_, @FPC_NBA and @FPC_Colts.