NBA playoffs 2024: Inside the 'wild' chess match between the Nuggets and Timberwolves

Stephen A. pleads for Gobert to step up his game vs. Jokic (2:20)

Stephen A. Smith acknowledges Nikola Jokic's dominance, but pleads for Rudy Gobert to provide more resistance against the Nuggets star. (2:20)

Two games into the NBA's Western Conference semifinals, the Minnesota Timberwolves weren't just beating the defending champs -- they were throttling them.

The Wolves' defense, ranked No. 1 in the league during the regular season, went from impenetrable in Game 1 to downright preposterous in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets. And despite missing four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who was away from the team for the birth of his first child, Minnesota's swarming defenders only seemed to multiply.

"I heard someone say it was like seven Timberwolves on the court," Minnesota forward Jaden McDaniels told ESPN earlier in the series. "It really feels like that when you are playing defense [with this team]."

After winning Game 1 on the road, the Wolves harassed Nuggets guard Jamal Murray into a 1-for-10 showing, limited center Nikola Jokic to eight points, forced the three-time MVP into four turnovers and held Denver to 32.6% shooting en route to a 26-point lead by halftime of Game 2.

It wasn't just proper recognition and defensive rotations, either. There was a certain style to Minnesota's suffocating schemes.

A clip of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Wolves' rangy, 6-foot-5 guard, picking up Murray full court went viral and featured Alexander-Walker flashing an almost maniacal smile in Murray's face after absorbing a bump to the body when Murray tried to free himself at the center circle. "I was just so lost in the flow of it," Alexander-Walker said after Game 2.

Minnesota's on-ball pressure ramped up even more when Alexander-Walker was joined by McDaniels. The duo's double-teams pestered Murray to the point where the normally steady guard had to get rid of the ball or risk a turnover.

The Wolves, two games into their first conference semifinal appearance in 20 years, were the toast of the league.

The 22-year-old Anthony Edwards heard comparisons to Michael Jordan for scoring 70 points through the Wolves' 2-0 start. The 23-year-old McDaniels, whom Minnesota coach Chris Finch sometimes refers to as "Scottie Pippen" and who told ESPN, "It seems like my limbs keep growing [and] sometimes it's hard to even control my arms because they're so long," was being heralded as a prototypical defensive stopper.

But just 10 days later, the Wolves have lost three straight games for the first time all season and are on the brink of elimination heading into Thursday's Game 6 at home (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). With two must-win games ahead to save one of the franchise's most successful seasons, how did Minnesota go from world-beaters to the brink of elimination?

By falling dangerously behind in one of this postseason's most intriguing chess matches.

Windhorst on Jokic: 'We are seeing an absolute master at work'

Brian Windhorst explains why the Timberwolves were helpless against Nikola Jokic in Game 5.

The Nuggets changed how they use Murray

The schedule allowed a rare three-day break as the series shifted from Denver to Minneapolis for Game 3. While the Wolves awaited a suspension that never came, with Murray being fined $100,000 for tossing a towel and heating pad onto the court in frustration in the midst of Minnesota's 106-80 Game 2 win, the time off proved beneficial in several ways for the Nuggets.

Murray, who was dealing with a strained left calf he suffered in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers, had an opportunity to rest. Denver coach Michael Malone, meanwhile, had an opportunity to adjust.

Malone dug into film from the first two games of the series, searching for a way to get Murray looking more like the player who built a reputation as one of the league's premier playoff performers.

Malone found it -- by taking the ball out of his point guard's hands, and having either Jokic or forward Aaron Gordon initiate the offense. Gordon, for his part, brought up the ball for 15 possessions in Game 3 after doing so just 17 times in Games 1 and 2.

The extra touches continued Gordon's offensive groove. After scoring 20 points on 57.1% shooting in Game 2, he averaged 19.7 points on 69.7% in the next three Nuggets wins.

Not only did the Gordon activation save Murray from being pressured for 94 feet, it prevented the 7-1 Gobert from stationing himself off the ball as a roaming rim-protector. And after scoring just eight points on 3-for-18 shooting in Game 2, Murray scored 24 on 11-for-21 shooting in Game 3 as the Nuggets blew out the Wolves on their home floor.

"How Jamal goes, we go," a Nuggets source told ESPN after Game 3. "Very simple."

Murray kept going in Games 4 and 5, averaging 17.5 points on 48.4% shooting and six assists in two more wins to put the Nuggets up 3-2.

Denver exploited the tactic even further in Games 4 and 5. In each of those games, Gobert defended the player who brought up the ball on 18 possessions, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, tied for his third most in a game over his 11-year career.

Ant Edwards after Jokic's dominant Game 5: 'I just laugh'

Anthony Edwards gives props to Nikola Jokic for being the best player on the court with a double-double in Game 5.

The MVP cooked the Defensive Player of the Year -- by being even slower

After dropping two games at home, the Nuggets returned the favor by winning Games 3 and 4 inside Minnesota's Target Center. But Edwards made them sweat for it.

He scored 44 points in Game 4, hitting the 40-point plateau for the third time this postseason. If not for an 8-0 Denver run in the final 20 seconds of the second quarter or Karl-Anthony Towns shooting 1-for-10 in the first half en route to a 5-for-18 night, Minnesota could very well have been the team looking to win the series Thursday.

Game 5 belonged solely to Jokic. And the Nuggets center delivered a performance worthy of the MVP trophy he received from NBA commissioner Adam Silver before the game.

After the Wolves held Jokic relatively in check in Games 1 and 2 -- he averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds and 8.5 assists but shot 42.1% from the field, 20% from 3 with 5.5 turnovers -- McDaniels was still wary of the force they were reckoning with.

"Just him walking on the court makes our antennas go up," McDaniels told ESPN prior to Game 3. "Just for this series, when [Jokic] gets the ball, we try to go get to our man because we know how good of a passer he is.

"He could score, too. We'll rather let him score, really. Just because, everyone else getting involved? It's over, man."

Jokic did both in Game 5, scoring 40 points on 15-for-22 shooting and dishing out 13 assists with zero turnovers. He did it by going right at Gobert. After shooting just 11-for-28 (39.3%) with Gobert as his primary defender through the first four games of the series, Jokic shot 8-for-9 against him (88.9%), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"I'm just trying to read and be aggressive," Jokic said after Tuesday's win. "Today was a really good night for me."

It was a methodical night, too. While Jokic traditionally is quick to make his offensive move -- taking an average of 1.44 dribbles per field goal attempt in the regular season, ranking 46th among 52 players with 1,000 or more shots, according to Second Spectrum -- he pounded the ball much more in Game 5.

In 14 touches for Jokic that began in the half court with Gobert on him, Jokic averaged 2.36 dribbles per touch for an average touch length of 5.0 seconds. It was the longest average touch length and most dribbles per touch Jokic has ever had against one defender in his nine-year career, regular season or playoffs (among games with a minimum of 10 direct touches against a single defender). For Denver, it was yet another way to limit Gobert from playing his preferred roamer role on the backline.

"We know he's a 1-of-1 kind of player. We know he's going to make some incredible plays," Gobert said of Jokic after Game 5. "But we got to keep at it. We got to keep making it tough on him. ... we got to keep playing and going right back at him."

Ant-Man is missing his backcourt sidekick

The one thing the Wolves could count on throughout the series -- Edwards' excellence -- took a hit in Game 5.

With veteran guard Mike Conley sidelined with a sore right Achilles, the Nuggets harassed Edwards all over the court the way the Wolves wings did to Murray to start the series. (Conley was "50-50" to play in Game 5 before being ruled out and there's still hope he'll play in Game 6, a Timberwolves source told ESPN.)

Without Conley to share the ballhandling duties Tuesday, Edwards controlled the action more than he had all season. His 102 touches tied for the second most he's had in a game in his entire career, including regular season and playoffs, according to Second Spectrum.

And the Nuggets kept sending bodies at him. The 29 double-teams Edwards faced in Game 5 were more than he faced in the first four games of the series combined.

"This was crazy," Edwards said of the extra defensive attention after finishing with 18 points on 5-for-15 shooting. "Today was crazy, for sure. Yeah, today was wild."

Which is an appropriate word to describe the series as a whole. Wild anticipation. Wild performances. Wild swings. And wildly successful adjustments by the defending champs against a Wolves team now tasked with making its own.