DENVER – It was less than a year ago that the Timberwolves made it into the playoffs by beating the Nuggets on the last night of the regular season.
But the disparity between where the two franchises are now was never more stark than it was Tuesday night.
Here were the Nuggets, a humming machine of basketball, coming at the Wolves in waves in a 133-107 victory that helped their case for a top seed in the playoffs.
Here were the Wolves, limping into the Pepsi Center with five regular contributors out because of injury and beaten down from a season of tension and upheaval.
Try as they might, the Wolves stood little chance.
“It’s just crazy to see where they’re at now compared to us in only a year’s difference …” said guard Tyus Jones, who had 16 points. “That’s how quickly the league can change, but you saw the team that they had and how good they can be. You could just see it.”
The Wolves got an up-close look Tuesday.
Jamal Murray led a balanced scoring effort for Denver with 30 points, Paul Millsap had 23, including a deflating half-court buzzer beater to end the third, while Nikola Jokic added 18 in his duel with Karl-Anthony Towns. Denver finished shooting 60 percent from the floor and from three-point range.
“A lot of times through whether it be any type of pain or hurt, good can come out of that if you come together as a group, especially in sports,” Wolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “They’ve done a good job this year of staying together and pushing themselves to a new level.”
Towns had a prolific night - 34 points and 10 rebounds in his return from a right knee injury. Towns showed in a nationally televised effort on TNT he deserves All-NBA consideration alongside Jokic as the two tangoed on and off all night. But his valiant effort, along with those teammates who were healthy, were no match for the Nuggets as Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose joined previously injured Andrew Wiggins, Luol Deng and Robert Covington in the medical ward.
The Wolves and Saunders have made it clear they aren’t tanking, but the injury bug may be doing the bidding for those fans who wouldn’t mind seeing the Wolves’ draft odds increase.
The Wolves hung in there for most of three quarters, but the Nuggets answered every run that cut their lead to a couple possessions. After Millsap’s buzzer-beater, the Nuggets closed out the games and ended the night reaching their largest lead. The Wolves locker room was subdued after the game, and Saunders didn’t have much to say other than to praise their effort.
“I give our players a lot of credit. They’re playing really hard,” Saunders said. “With guys out, we have guys trying to step into those roles and sometimes it can get tough. When you step into other roles you might not be used to.”
Added Jones: “We got fighters in this locker room. Undermanned tonight, a few guys out. The next guys stepping up. Played extremely hard all 48 [minutes] and that’s all you can ask for.”
The Wolves continue their road trip Thursday in Utah, another team that was near their level a season ago that is bound for the playoffs again. Jones said seeing the Nuggets’ success buoys the Wolves’ for next season, that in one year things change dramatically.
“It definitely gives us hope,” Jones said. “We had a lot going on this year. Just had to fight through it.”
Just like on nights like Tuesday, when there wasn’t much going right for the Wolves.