Good Luck Keeping the Wolves at Bay

In the normal course of an NBA playoffs season that lasts for two months and has 16 teams, there's usually still a preliminary feeling with most second-round series — or a feeling that a series is likely to be a huge mismatch.

I would put both East series in the second round 2024 playoffs in those categories. As of writing time, Celtics/Cavs hasn't started yet, but the Celtics head into the series as the better team on both sides of the ball even accounting for Kristaps Porzingis' injury.

After Game 1, Knicks/Pacers is set up to be a fantastic series. However, New York doesn't look to have the depth or scoring options to go to the Finals, and it'll be a struggle for Indiana to stop teams from scoring a lot as the games go on.

With the top-of-the-bracket series in the West, Dallas is clearly the more playoff-experienced team thanks to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, but the team doesn't look much like it did when the Mavs lost to the Warriors in the 2022 West Finals. OKC passed its first playoff test of the SGA-Chet-Jalen Williams era with flying colors, but the matchup games get tougher from here in the playoffs with an undersized team.

Perhaps we'll see a surprise in one of the aforementioned series or a new wrinkle that convinces us a team is a championship favorite. All that being said, I thought the marquee tilt of this round would be the Denver/Minnesota series — so much so that during Saturday night's Game 1, I wondered if that series could actually be the NBA Finals in disguise thanks to its superstar power, offensive execution, and well-rounded rosters.

Through two games, if Nuggets/Timberwolves was a title fight, it would be close to a stoppage.

On Monday, the Wolves took apart the defending champions in a way that was so comprehensive, it made Minnesota title favorites in my mind. The Celtics are still favorites on most books, and close to even money at that, which I find a little bit absurd with 12 games still to be won for Boston. I suspect those odds might shift if Minnesota takes care of business in Game 3 at home.

The series isn't over for Denver, but it's a tough ask. Only five teams have ever come back from 0-2 in a best-of-7 series after losing the first two games at home, and it's only happened twice in the last 19 playoffs.

If you're still skeptical that Minnesota should be considered favorites to with the championship in June, I'll offer all of the following points:

* No remaining playoff team can boast the eight-man depth Minnesota can, especially on defense.
* Nikola Jokic — who has been impervious to defensive matchups and top defenders for the last four seasons — has been frustrated by Minnesota in the frontcourt and backcourt.
* Aaron Gordon, Denver's Swiss Army knife defender, has been a combined -56 over the two games despite scoring 20 points in Game 2.
* Rudy Gobert didn't even play in Game 2 due to the birth of his first child, so it's both smaller and bigger lineups that are destroying the Nuggets.
* Karl-Anthony Towns has never looked more assertive in his playoff career.
* Anthony Edwards didn't even need to take over in Game 2.

Then, there's the way Minnesota has clearly gotten into Denver's head. Jamal Murray is hobbled by a calf injury, and can't keep up with the defense of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaden McDaniels, Edwards, and others.

The way Murray tossed a heat pack onto the court in the second quarter of Game 2 reminded me of the infamous moment when Steph Curry catapulted a mouthpiece into the front row in Game 6 of the 2016 Finals. Obviously, the stakes are different at a different stage of the playoffs, but they were both times where the lead guard on a title favorite team lost his cool as the underdog team had figured out the opposition.

With Edwards leading the way for Minnesota, and an incredible defense stifling the league's best, the Wolves could be impossible to beat four times in two weeks.

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