Why Is Jamal Murray Struggling Against the Timberwolves?

Timberwolves disrupt Nuggets with unexpected defensive strategy.

by Nouman Rasool
Why Is Jamal Murray Struggling Against the Timberwolves?
© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Entering the NBA playoffs, the Denver Nuggets were widely favored to clinch the championship title. However, after a stunning 0-2 deficit against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round, their odds have plummeted, leaving them as +400 underdogs, according to BetMGM.

The situation took a turn for the worse following a disheartening loss on Monday, with Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson candidly expressing the team’s dismay: “They punked us. They literally just manhandled us”.

This dramatic shift in performance begs the question: How did a team that smoothly sailed to last year’s championship with a 16-4 playoff record suddenly find themselves on the brink? A crucial factor in this turnaround is the unexpectedly poor performance of Jamal Murray.

The guard's output has been dismal, averaging a mere 12.5 points at an abysmal 28.1 percent shooting efficiency in the series—down significantly from his regular-season average. Further exacerbating his struggles, a sore calf has visibly limited his mobility, leading to visible frustration on the court.

This frustration peaked when Murray threw a heat pack on the floor towards the officials during a game. Beyond Murray’s individual struggles, the defensive strategies employed by the Timberwolves have been instrumental.

Jaden McDaniels, Anthony Edwards, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have been pivotal in neutralizing Murray, particularly excelling in point-of-attack defense. Their ability to navigate through screens, combined with Rudy Gobert's presence in the paint—even in his absence during Game 2—has significantly disrupted Denver's key two-man game between Jokic and Murray.

Minnesota's Aggressive Defense

Minnesota’s approach has been marked by a robust physicality that has thrown the Nuggets off balance. Their defense aggressively manages opposing players' movements, maintaining contact and unsettling Denver’s usual play patterns, particularly affecting Murray.

The referees' leniency with physical play as the season progressed has only played into the hands of Minnesota's hard-hitting defensive style. Adding to Denver's woes, an ankle injury forced Reggie Jackson out of Game 2, placing even more pressure on Murray to decipher Minnesota's formidable defense.

His efforts so far have been fruitless. Nikola Jokic, too, has found it challenging against Minnesota's towering defense. Averaging only 24.0 points on 42.1 percent shooting this series—well below his regular-season efficacy—Jokic has been stifled.

Minnesota's defensive stalwarts, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid, have effectively contained him, and even with a strategic adjustment in Game 2, Jokic struggled against the increased physicality. Meanwhile, Anthony Edwards has emerged as a dominant force, overshadowing the Nuggets' defensive attempts.

Averaging 35.0 points on 60.9 percent shooting, his prowess from beyond the arc and ability to overpower defenders like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon have left Denver scrambling for defensive answers. The Timberwolves' strategic focus on exploiting Jokic’s defensive vulnerabilities has been relentless.

Utilizing Kyle Anderson as a screener, they have forced Jokic into challenging defensive maneuvers, capitalizing on his slower defensive rotations and inability to effectively manage pick-and-pop situations.

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