DENVER NUGGETS (46-35) at MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (46-35)
Tip-off: Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
It's a de facto one-game playoff between the Nuggets and Timberwolves in Minneapolis.The NBA playoffs start on Wednesday. Not officially—the real playoffs start on Saturday—but the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves will be playing one game that decides the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, with the winner advancing to the postseason and the loser relegated to the draft lottery. Denver's red hot, having won six games in a row against all above-.500 teams for the first time in franchise history. Each game has been a must-win affair, but the late-season surge will have all been for naught if the Nuggets can't finish off the job on Wednesday. Most recently, the Nuggets beat Portland 88-82 at home on Monday. Minnesota beat Memphis on Monday night, but they've been nowhere near Denver's level of play recently—they're 6-6 in their last 12 games, and lost 100-96 in Denver last Thursday. Wednesday's matchup will be different for a couple reasons, though. The Wolves will be at home and, much more importantly, star SG Jimmy Butler is now back in the Minnesota lineup after missing about six weeks with an injury. The Wolves still have an injury concern, though, as starting PF Taj Gibson is questionable to play on Wednesday.
Minnesota isn't the only team in this matchup to have recently returned one of its key players, as Denver SG Gary Harris made his return to the Nuggets lineup on Wednesday night after having missed over three weeks with an injury. Harris played only 18 minutes, but scored 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting and grabbed two steals. A strong ball-handler, shooter and defender, Harris takes some pressure off the rest of a young backcourt. That said, being fully in charge the last few weeks was probably good experience for SG Jamal Murray, who posted a few 20-plus-point games in Harris' absence. He struggled from the floor against Portland—most guys did in a game that went Under its total by 50 points—scoring 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting. He's 38% from deep on the season while Harris is at 39.6%, making the Nuggets a dangerous team on the perimeter. Heck, even C Nikola Jokic shootings 39.2% from three on 3.7 attempts per game. Of course, that's far from the only thing the versatile—and usually dominant—Jokic does on the floor. He went head to head with ex-Nugget Jusuf Nurkic on Monday and came out ahead, notching his 10th triple-double of the season with 15 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists. Nurkic and Minnesota C Karl-Anthony Towns are two of the league's best young bigs, and watching them go at it in a must-win game will be a treat. Former sixth man SF Will Barton was bumped to the starting lineup when Harris went down, and remained there upon the guard's return on Monday. It seems likely he'll start again Wednesday, although will probably move back to the bench if the Nuggets win and get several days of rest before the postseason. With 22 points and seven rebounds, he was the team's top performer against the Blazers behind Jokic. PF Paul Millsap was quiet with six points and nine boards; he had scored at least 12 points in his previous seven games.
Butler has played exactly 23 minutes in each of the two games he's played since returning, and he's clearly still working his way back to full strength. That said, he's been excellent in those minutes on the floor, scoring 18 points against the Lakers on Friday and 15 against the Grizzlies on Monday. He's also nabbed seven total steals between the two contests. His defense is especially important, as none of his teammates stand out as especially gifted or disciplined on that side of the ball. Towns is guilty in that respect, but so dominant on offense and on the boards that it often doesn't matter. Such was the case on Monday, when he posted 24 and 18 in only 30 minutes. He had 26 and 13 against Denver last week. SF Andrew Wiggins' development has hit a hitch in his fourth year in the league, and he's struggled with efficiency on the offensive end. He's made 28 of 75 shots (32.9%) from the floor in his last five games. PG Jeff Teague is averaging 24.5 PPG, 8.0 APG and 2.5 SPG in the Wolves' last two wins, and he'd be giving Minnesota a huge boost with a third straight game playing that well. He had 15 points and six assists against Denver last week. Backup PGs Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose have been getting decent minutes as of late, and either could be an x-factor getting buckets for the bench unit. Of course, that's primarily the job of PG Jamal Crawford, but he's been ice cold lately with 5.6 PPG on 30% shooting in his last four games. Gibson had 17 points and 14 rebounds against Denver last week, so needless to say he'll be sorely missed if he has to sit out Wednesday's winner-takes-all showdown.