DENVER – Michael Malone surveyed the scene Tuesday night and wondered where everyone was — not just Denver’s fans, but the Nuggets themselves.
“Our team was kind of like the crowd tonight — we were late arriving,” Malone said after Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray helped the top-seeded Nuggets overcame a slow start to eliminate the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-109 in Game 5 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series.
Anthony Edwards, who led Minnesota with 29 points, hit the back iron on a 27-foot 3-point attempt at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime.
The top-seeded Nuggets will face the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns, who eliminated in the Los Angeles Clippers in five games, in the second round, which begins Saturday night in Denver.
Despite Denver being the better seed, Jokic called the Suns “the favorite to win the championship. They have an amazing, amazing group of guys, well-coached.” He went up and down their roster, saving special praise for Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton. “So, it's going to be a big challenge for us.”
Jokic also applauded the Wolves, who were without top perimeter defender Jaden McDaniels (broken hand) and center Naz Reid (broken wrist) for the series and lost Kyle Anderson to an eye injury in Game 4.
“And they still managed to be in every game except Game 1. That was the only game that was an easy win for us,” Jokic said. “They did a good job. We were just a little bit better this time.”
Jokic had a triple-double and scored 28 points despite missing 21 of 29 shots, and Murray scored 35 points to help the Nuggets overcome an early 13-point deficit and hand Malone his record 25th career playoff victory for Denver, one more than Doug Moe had.
A rainstorm slowed traffic into downtown Denver and an earlier start than normal had fans streaming into Ball Arena a little late.
“I looked up, there’s a lot of empty seats and coaches said, well, the weather’s really bad. But the way we played that first quarter was like a regular-season game,” Malone said. 'And then slowly but surely, I felt Jamal made a couple of shots. And Jamal plays with so much emotion. And I think he got our team going. ... Jamal just wouldn't quit, you know? And he made big shot after big shot.”
Good thing for Denver, too, because Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. were a combined 11 for 39 from the floor and the Nuggets fell behind by 13 in the first quarter, a sluggish start that stumped Malone.
“I couldn't put my finger on it as it was going on,” he said. “Was it nerves? Was it the moment? Was it too big for us trying to close out a team? I don't think it was. We just showed up like we weren't playing hard. But it was not the necessary physicality and aggression and intensity that is needed to close the team out.
“And I couldn't believe at halftime we were up by one,” Malone added. “I was like, 'Wow! We just played that half. And you look at all the numbers and the only reason we were up by one was the foul line.”
A 15-4 advantage at the free throw line helped Denver inch ahead 48-47 at the break. They finished 32 of 36 from the stripe.
Michael Porter Jr. was held without a basket until his dunk with 10:08 left in the game. Jokic missed eight of his first 10 shots 48 hours after tying his career playoff high with 43 points in a Game 4 overtime loss at Minnesota.
Karl-Anthony Towns added 26 points for the Wolves, Rudy Gobert had 16 points and 15 rebounds before fouling out and Nickeil Alexander-Walker chipped in 14 points.
“Guys were super-engaged and it showed," Wolves point guard Mike Conley said. “And that showed that we're going to fight no matter what.”
The Nuggets got 14 points from Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown, who was in Edwards' face on the game-tying attempt at the buzzer. Porter scored all eight of his points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of clutch 3-pointers after missing his first five shots from behind the arc.
The Wolves, who avoided a sweep with an overtime win in Minneapolis on Sunday, jumped out to a 25-12 lead before the Nuggets began chipping away.
“We started slow,” Murray said, “but once they started talking that woke us up. We locked in. We fought back in the second quarter and then I thought we did a good job executing down the stretch.”
A disappointing season came to an end for the Wolves, who were banged up — Karl-Anthony Towns missed 52 games with a calf injury — and never really jelled like they had hoped after the monster trade for Gobert.
“The defining characteristic of this team is that we've always played our best basketball when we were in desperation mode,” coach Chris Finch said. "It's not how you want to live. Again, its all credit to us. We had many points during the season to let go of the rope or give up on the moment but we never ever did.
“So, I love that about our guys. They kept competing. But you know a more mature team doesn't find itself in those situations as much and that's a part of our growth.”
Finch added that the Wolves “learned a lot, too, with the two bigs (Gobert and Towns) and everything going into the offseason, I felt like we learned a lot to be able to build around.”
Timberwolves: Anderson, who sustained a left eye injury and facial bruise in Game 4, didn't make the trip back to Denver so he could see some specialists.
Nuggets: Denver won a playoff series under Malone for the fifth time in the last five seasons.