Jamal Murray, Nuggets bounce back in Game 3 blowout of Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS — Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone challenged his team to act and play like the defending champions.

On Friday, the Nuggets, and Jamal Murray in particular, responded with their best performance of the playoffs, routing the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-90 in Game 3 at the Target Center. The Nuggets trail the Timberwolves 2-1 in their best-of-seven series.

Murray, fueled by a hostile Minnesota crowd that booed him from the moment he stepped onto the floor during pregame warmups, scored 18 of his 24 points in the first half to set the tone for the Nuggets.

“That definitely fueled me during the game,” Murray said of the boos. “And just keeps me in that mode. So it’s fun. I embrace that challenge. I embrace that moment. I probably deserved the boos, so I’m not shying away from it.”

Minnesota fans wouldn’t let Murray off the hook for throwing a heat pack and towel onto the floor during a dreadful 106-80 Nuggets loss in Game 2. Murray, who shot 3-for-18 in that loss, was fined $100,000 by the league for throwing objects onto the court.

Murray’s troublesome left calf strain was better Friday night, and he thrived in his role as the villain.

“He does kind of relish those moments where he’s a bad guy,” Malone said. “To me, that beginning of the game, you’re in hostile territory, and that’s kind of where you separate the man from the boys.”

The Nuggets built a 45-25 lead midway through the second quarter. With Malone emphasizing a hit-first mentality on offense, the Nuggets cleared more space for their shooters than they had in the previous two games against the Timberwolves’ suffocating defense.

Murray showed how much better he was feeling when he used two crossovers to shake free of Karl-Anthony Towns before drilling a jumper on the big man in the first quarter.

“We had a live practice, so I got to test it out,” Murray said of Denver’s practice on Thursday. “But this was probably the best I felt going into the game. And then it tightened up at the end. But it’s good, man.”

Minnesota fans likely wished Murray had been suspended for throwing objects onto the floor in Game 2, even if Timberwolves coach Chris Finch wasn’t expecting that to happen.

“I wasn’t disappointed in the league’s decision,” Finch said. “Not because necessarily I agreed. It was simply I never, ever, ever expected them to suspend him. I thought they would throw a heavy fine. There hasn’t really been much precedent for suspending people certainly in the playoffs unless it’s a repeat offense. Whether it is or it isn’t a suspendable thing doesn’t matter now.”

Finch was expecting the Nuggets to deliver a championship performance, and Denver did just that. All five Denver starters scored in double figures. After Murray started hot, MVP Nikola Jokic took over in the third quarter, scoring 13 of his 24 points in the frame. He finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks, along with several crucial screens to set teammates free for shots.

Michael Porter Jr. had 21 points, and Aaron Gordon buried three triples and had 13 points.

“That was Denver Nugget basketball,” Malone said. “And that’s the first time I’ve seen that in this series for four quarters.”

Anthony Edwards led the Timberwolves with 19 points but also had a game-high five turnovers, and Minnesota was outscored by 32 points in the 37 minutes he was on the court.

“I’ll take the blame for this loss,” Edwards said. “I came out with no energy at all. I can’t afford to do that for my team. I let my team down, coaches down, fans down. I’ll be ready Sunday.”

Edwards wasn’t the only member of the Timberwolves to take accountability after the team lost for the first time this postseason following a 6-0 start.

Minnesota point guard Mike Conley (10 points, 6 assists) said the game was officiated differently than the series was in Denver, as evidenced by Jaden McDaniels picking up three fouls in eight minutes of playing time in the first half. But Conley put the onus on his team to adapt to the whistle.

“Tonight, guys weren’t allowed to be as physical as we were in the last game, so we had to adjust our play for that, and that’s what good teams do,” Conley said. “We don’t blame the refs and think that’s why we lost this game. We know better than that.”

Towns, who had 14 points on 4-for-7 shooting, tied for the second-fewest shot attempts he has taken in 23 career playoff games, said Denver gave Minnesota a wake-up call.

“It’s a great humbling experience, I think, for our team,” Towns said. “To understand that this is not easy. Just because we’ve been fortunate to find ourselves on the winning end for six straight playoff games don’t mean that the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the 10th is going to be the same result. I think this is a great humbling experience for us and the defending champions definitely gave us that experience and it’s going to make us hungrier. I think it’s going to make us a better team.”

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.


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