Karl-Anthony Towns closed the gap, before Jimmy Butler delivered the knockout blow against the Nuggets.
Yet when Denver coach Michael Malone emerged from the home locker room, his box score marked up in red pen centered again around his team’s “reoccurring nightmare.”
The Nuggets failed to protect the ball against one of the NBA’s best at swiping it. Denver allowed 21 points off 22 turnovers Wednesday night, a huge factor in its 112-104 loss at Pepsi Center.
“Every night, we’re spotting (the opponent) 20 points,” Malone said. “That’s ridiculous. If you really care about winning, you’ll take it upon yourself to say, ‘I have to value the basketball. I have to make better decisions. I have to stop making silly plays and value this ball like it’s the most important thing in the world.’
“If we do that, we win this game tonight. And we probably win a couple other games.”
Instead, the Nuggets (16-15) saw their eight-game home winning streak snapped. They also dropped their first matchup against the rival and Northwest Division-leading Timberwolves, before a quick rematch on Dec. 27 in Minneapolis. They fell to seventh place in the Western Conference standings entering a pre-Christmas road back-to-back at Portland and Golden State on Friday and Saturday.
Denver’s 22 giveaways were their second-highest total in a season in which the Nuggets have been a fixture at the bottom of the NBA in opponent points off turnovers at 20 per game. That turnover total came against a Timberwolves team that entered Wednesday ranked in the top 10 in the league in takeaways (16 per game) and points off turnovers (18.5 per game), making it the Nuggets’ top focal point entering the contest.
But poor passes, too much dribbling, deflections and uncharacteristic passed-up shots were at the root of the sloppy ball security. A career-high 10 turnovers came from Nikola Jokic, who is widely known as one of the NBA’s best passing big men.
“I need to take care of it,” said Jokic, who also finished with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists in his return to the starting lineup while working his way back from a sprained ankle. “It’s a big number, 10, but I was just trying to get my guys open.”
Denver committed three turnovers during what Malone called the game’s key stretch, a 14-4 Timberwolves run to finish the third quarter that trimmed a 14-point Nuggets lead to 84-80. Denver then coughed up five more in the final period, when Minnesota outscored the Nuggets 32-20.
Still, the Nuggets used a patchwork lineup — Jokic started at power forward alongside center Mason Plumlee, while recent G League call-up Torrey Craig started at shooting guard in place of injured leading scorer Gary Harris — to build double-digit leads in both halves. Point guard Jamal Murray scored 30 points, including a 5-of-6 mark from 3-point distance, to keep Denver within striking distance as Minnesota made its second-half charge, while Plumlee added 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in his second double-double of the season.
But Malone also bluntly critiqued his team’s defense that allowed Minnesota to shoot 52.3 percent in the second half, gave up 52 total points in the paint and let the Timberwolves connect on 4-of-8 attempts from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.
Towns scored the first 11 points of the final frame, highlighted by an emphatic dunk to tie the score at 91 with less than eight minutes to play. Then, Butler became the closer down the stretch. He sank a 3 to give the Timberwolves a 99-95 advantage with 4:41 left. Then he scored eight consecutive points, including a pull-up jumper to increase Minnesota’s lead to six with less than a minute to play and a pair of free throws on its next possession to seal the victory. Both finished with 25 points.
“We just gave up a lot of easy baskets,” Plumlee said. “We let them get to the rim uncontested (on) a lot of straight-line drives … Our defense was just nonexistent toward the end of the game, and that’s when it’s got to be at its best.”
The Nuggets’ defense has been inconsistent throughout this season, clearly impacted Wednesday by the long-term loss of all-star power forward Paul Millsap (wrist surgery) and the short-term loss of Harris (elbow contusion).
But turnovers have been Denver’s most consistently troubling weakness. The Nuggets will again spend part of Thursday watching film on their mistakes. Players will be penalized for committing a turnover during practice.
But Malone said fixing those ball-security woes will come down to individual accountability.
“As much as I’d like to sit here and say it’s my fault on the turnovers, I’m not gonna do that,” Malone said. “I’ll take a hit for a game plan or lack of execution, which I do all the time. But when you turn the ball over, that’s you out there turning the ball over…
“We can talk about it until we are blue in the face. I don’t have a magic potion. I don’t have a magic pill. We just have to realize, at some point, if we want to be a good team, we can’t give up 20 points a night on turnovers.”