The way he had thrown himself around the Target Center court Saturday night, you would have expected Taj Gibson to be in pain.
And, sitting at his locker after the Wolves had lost 107-106 to Denver, he was. But the pain was emotional, not physical. This game stung; Gibson’s frustration was real.
“It’s so hard, after battling that hard, to come up short like that,” he said. “So tough.”
Stopping Denver’s penetration — and the open three-point looks that often came as a result — was a problem most of night. But, down the stretch, too much went wrong.
Down a point and coming out of a timeout with 14.5 seconds left, the plan was for Dario Saric to set a pick for Jerryd Bayless, getting him into the paint, where he could either shoot or get the ball to Karl-Anthony Towns. But, that play defended, the Wolves settled for Luol Deng’s corner three-pointer, which banged off the rim.
Another difficult home loss.
“Two games in a row we had a chance [against Denver this season],’’ said Towns, who scored 31 points with 12 rebounds. “It was a rough one.”
The Wolves were beaten on the boards and on second-chance points. Late in the game, within one, Andrew Wiggins let Malik Beasley get behind him, get a length-of-the-court pass from Nikola Jokic and score to put Denver up three again, a mistake Wiggins owned after the game.
“Yeah,” said Wiggins, who scored 10 points in the game but just two points on four shots in the second half. “It was just bad awareness.”
The Wolves had a chance. After Deng’s dunk with 40.5 seconds left, the Wolves got a stop when Gibson went to the floor to get a loose ball. But the Wolves (25-27) couldn’t convert. And so they lost for the third time in four games with a three-game road trip looming.
The Nuggets? They won their sixth straight, despite playing their fourth game in six nights, playing on the back end of a back-to-back with both Jamal Murray and Gary Harris out injured.
Bayless had his second straight double-double, scoring 15 with 10 assists. Both Gorgui Dieng and Deng were in double figures off a Wolves bench that scored 38 points.
It wasn’t enough to offset Beasley’s 22 points or 19 off the bench from Trey Lyles. Will Barton had 20, Monte Morris 17. Those four combined to hit 11 of the Nuggets’ 13 three-pointers.
Give the Nuggets (37-15) credit. They’ve been doing this all season. They’re now 8-1 on the back end of back-to-backs. This team — beat out by the Wolves for a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season a year ago — has figured out a way to win.
The Wolves are still searching.
“I feel they’re a smarter team [this season], more organized,” said Gibson, who battled with Jokic all night, limiting the Nuggets’ star center to 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting. “They know how to pick you apart, slowly. That’s how it was tonight. It’s a tough road win for them. We have to learn and adjust. That’s the team we’re trying to be like, eventually.”
They weren’t Saturday, in front of an announced 17,208 disappointed fans. This was a tough one. It stung.
“They killed us on the glass, especially the offensive,” Wiggins said. “They were getting second-chance points and second opportunities. A team like that’s too good to give second, third chances.”