Nuggets finally at full strength as they open NBA playoffs

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DENVER—The top-seeded Denver Nuggets start what they hope is a deep playoff run when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night, and this time Nikola Jokic has his wingmen alongside him.

Jokic said he’s eager to see how far the Nuggets can go in the postseason with a fully healthy roster for the first time since Jamal Murray was dropping 50 points against Utah in the National Basketball Association (NBA) bubble in 2020.

“Yes, then we can see: Are we capable of doing something when we are completely healthy?” Jokic said.

Murray (knee) was sidelined each of the last two postseasons and Michael Porter Jr. (back) missed a playoff series loss against Phoenix in 2021 and sat out last year’s first-round loss to Golden State following a midseason operation.

Even with Murray and Porter back on the court, Jokic put up numbers worthy of another Michael Jordan Award with 29 triple-doubles, and he nearly AVERAGED a triple-double, finishing with 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists.

Jokic is a finalist to win his third straight MVP honor, something last accomplished by Hall of Famer Larry Bird in 1986. But the Serbian superstar shied away from all the buzz about the award, especially last month when media polls began to show a neck-and-neck race with 76ers big man Joel Embiid.

The hardware Jokic really relishes is the Larry O’Brien NBA championship trophy, although he’s not one to talk about that goal much, either.

“I’m just thinking about the next game,” Jokic said. “I’m not thinking about the finish line.”

The Nuggets, who earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time in their history, finally could turn their thoughts toward the starting line Friday night as they gathered for a team dinner to watch the Timberwolves earn the No. 8 seed by crushing Oklahoma City 120-95.

Game 1 is Sunday night in Denver, where the Nuggets were 34-7 this season, a game shy of the Memphis Grizzlies’ NBA-best home-court record.

While the Timberwolves, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, were participating in the play-in with games against the Lakers and Thunder, the Nuggets had a week off.

So, coach Michael Malone gave them two days off, then worked them hard at practice Wednesday and Thursday, lightened up Friday and then had another intense workout Saturday morning.

“You know, we weren’t fully able to prepare until today,” Malone said, “but I would just say getting in the gym, competing and spending a lot of time together” ranked as accomplishments for the week. “Reinforcing the ‘we.’ They got together last night to watch the game as a team, just the players, broke bread, more team bonding. And I enjoyed the week because this looked like a training camp.”

The Wolves aren’t your typical eighth seed, just happy to reach the playoffs. They were just four wins shy of being the No. 4 seed and they went 20-15 against the top 10 teams in the West.

“We should have confidence in anything we do,” Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We know the work we put in all year, all the adversity we went through, everything we went through. There’s no reason to step on the court and feel like an eighth seed, have an eighth-seed confidence.”

Wolves guard Mike Conley was with the Grizzlies in 2011 when they were a No. 8 seed and beat the top-seeded Spurs.

“Don’t go in there thinking it’s going to never happen. It happens,” Conley said. “I was a part of it. Going in, you have to have a mindset that you’ve got to beat them to win. You can’t rely on things to fall your way. You can’t rely on them to miss shots when they’re open. You have to go get it to win it.

“And that’s kind of like the mindset right now. We’ve got to beat them in every facet of the game if we want to have a chance, but it is possible.”

GROWING TOWNS

KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS missed 52 games this season with a severe calf strain, but he’s been rounding into form this month. He scored 26 points to lead the Timberwolves past the Thunder on Friday night.

Now in his eighth season, Towns has been in more control on the court since he came back, an important sign of growth for a team that has shown maturity issues despite Towns, Conley, Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson all being veterans with a combined 34 years of experience.

“I just feel like I’m just trying to do a better job of keeping the composure around everyone,” Towns said.

NEW LOOK

WITH starting forward Jaden McDaniels, their best perimeter defender, out with a broken hand, the Timberwolves turned to Nickeil Alexander-Walker in their play-in game win over Oklahoma City to guard Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, his cousin.

The suggestion actually came from president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, the man who helped build the current Nuggets roster.

Alexander-Walker gave the Timberwolves 37 high-quality minutes, helping keep Gilgeous-Alexander in check and producing 12 points, four rebounds, six assists, two blocks and three steals.

Image credits: AP

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