MINNEAPOLIS – The Denver Nuggets are poised for a long run this spring, the league's best shooting team with a clean bill of health that boasts, of course, the two-time reigning NBA MVP.
Their depth is right up there on that asset list, too, as the Minnesota Timberwolves have been reminded during this so-far lopsided first-round NBA playoff series that the Nuggets lead 3-0.
“It’s been a different guy’s night every night, so I think really we’ve just been very spread out,” said Michael Porter Jr. “Everyone’s doing their job, so it’s definitely not a one-man effort out there.”
When Nikola Jokic picked up his fourth foul with 5:51 left in the third quarter of the Game 3 win on Friday at Minnesota, Bruce Brown and Jeff Green entered the game and helped make sure Denver stayed in control.
The three reserves in the rotation — Brown, Green and rookie Christian Braun — combined for 32 points. Jokic and standout point guard Jamal Murray were again complemented well by their fellow starters, with 25 points and nine rebounds from Porter, 14 points and smothering defense on Karl-Anthony Towns by Aaron Gordon and a hot-shooting second quarter by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“The non-Nikola minutes were always a question mark. Three games now, I think the non-Nikola minutes have been outstanding for us,” coach Mike Malone said. “Everybody’s contributing, and for us to do what we’re talking about doing, you need everybody.”
The Nuggets have never been to the finals since entering the NBA in the 1976-77 season. They made the Western Conference Finals three years ago in the pandemic bubble in Florida.
Denver can be the first Western Conference team to reach the second round with a win Sunday at Minnesota in Game 4.
“We give them so much respect and we know that they are dangerous, and we don’t want to let them play freely,” Jokic said. “I think the focus that the guys have and the discipline, it’s off the charts, and that’s why we’re up 3-0.”
NUGGETS AT TIMBERWOLVES
Nuggets lead 3-0. Game 4, 9:30 p.m. EDT, TNT.
— NEED TO KNOW: The Nuggets have made more than half of their shots and lost just one of 12 quarters against the Timberwolves, whose 40-point second quarter in Game 2 stands as their highlight of the series so far.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Michael Porter Jr. The smooth-shooting 6-foot-10 small forward who has put his back trouble in the past is 22 for 41 from the floor and 11 of 12 from the foul line for Denver.
— INJURY WATCH: The absence of ace defender Jaden McDaniels (broken hand) and top bench scorer Naz Reid (broken wrist) has robbed the Timberwolves of their depth.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Mike Malone. The eighth-year head coach of the Nuggets has his team in prime position, with the top seed in a wide-open Western Conference and an opportunity to get some extra rest before the next round.
KINGS AT WARRIORS
Sacramento leads 2-1. Game 3, 3:30 p.m. EDT, ABC.
— NEED TO KNOW: The Warriors bounced back from consecutive losses in Sacramento to climb back into the series with a convincing Game 3 win. But with just 11 road wins this season, Golden State must stay on the gas at home with two of the final three games in Sacramento.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Draymond Green. The Warriors' emotional leader returns after his suspension for Game 3 for stomping on Domantas Sabonis’ chest in Game 2. The league cited Green’s history as part of the reason for the punishment, so he'll need to be on his best behavior moving forward.
— INJURY WATCH: Warriors guard Jordan Poole is playing through an ankle injury that has hindered him at times. Swingman Gary Payton II missed Game 3 for Golden State with an illness, but he might be back on Sunday.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray. The Kings' top two outside shooters made 411 3-pointers in the regular season at an impressive 40.7% clip. Both have struggled so far this series: Huerter is 3 of 20 and Murray is 1 of 8 from long range.
CELTICS AT HAWKS
Celtics lead 2-1. Game 4, 7 p.m. EDT, TNT.
— NEED TO KNOW: The second-seeded Celtics gave the Hawks a glimmer of hope with a 130-122 loss Friday in Game 3 — despite their best performance of the series (21 for 48) from 3-point range. That made the defeat especially disappointing for the Celtics, who realized the opportunity they squandered to move within one game closer to getting some extra rest ahead of the second round.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: Atlanta crashing the boards. The Hawks outrebounded the Celtics 48-29 in Game 3, with Clint Capela (11) leading the way and six others grabbing at least four, including guards Trae Young and Dejounte Murray with six apiece. Eleven offensive boards helped Atlanta hold a 23-9 edge in second-chance points. “There’s nothing tactical about it. It’s just a matter of will, and they wanted it more," Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. "They go every night. We’ve got to be able to stop that.”
— INJURY WATCH: Smart was very sore after falling on his tailbone in the closing minutes of Game 3 when he went up for a rebound against Capela. Smart, who had 24 points, was listed as a game-time decision for Sunday.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Young is still feeling the heat, even after his best playoff performance in two years with 32 points in Game 3. He was especially effective in the fourth quarter, with 15 points and no turnovers, but now Atlanta’s star point guard must do it again for his team to have its best shot at evening the series.
CAVALIERS AT KNICKS
Knicks lead 2-1. Game 4, 1 p.m. EDT, ABC.
— NEED TO KNOW: The Knicks held the Cavaliers to the lowest point total in any NBA game this season in their 99-79 victory in Game 3. By winning on Sunday, they would be on the brink of their first series victory in 10 years, since beating Boston in the first round in 2013.
— KEEP AN EYE ON: The atmosphere inside Madison Square Garden. With the 8:30 p.m. start for Game 3, Knicks fans had the building rocking to give the home team a big boost and perhaps rattling the young Cavs. Can they bring the same energy for a Sunday afternoon?
— INJURY WATCH: Darius Garland hobbled off the court in the fourth quarter on Friday after twisting his ankle when he stepped on a photographer behind the baseline, but was he able to return.
— PRESSURE IS ON: Garland. After scoring 32 points to spark Cleveland’s Game 2 win, he missed his first nine shots went finished 4 for 21 with 10 points on Friday. The fourth-year guard is too good and too important to the Cavs’ chances to play that poorly again.
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney and AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow and Paul Newberry contributed to this report.