Why the Timberwolves’ pregame film session, music and all, was the Nuggets’ downfall in Game 6

MINNEAPOLIS — At some point, you have to get up off the mat.

The only question — one that both the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves have faced in this heavyweight bout of a Western Conference semifinal series — is whether that time comes before or after the final bell sounds.

But when the Timberwolves got ready to take the Target Center floor for an elimination Game 6 on Thursday night, with those three consecutive losses on their minds and concerns about their confidence in their hearts, they were all pleasantly surprised by the multimedia presentation that was waiting for them inside the team’s locker room less than a half hour before tipoff. On the big screen in the middle of the circular room, the coaching staff featured a short film of highlights from those first two games of the series where Minnesota had Denver on the ropes.

The notion of replaying the video of previous performances is hardly new to NBA circles, of course, but the Timberwolves players themselves say this was significantly different. The integration of music as a backdrop to the clips was new, with Chicago-born rapper G Herbo among those featured. Those sounds, they said, had a way of striking up the emotions.

As young Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards shared after their 115-70 win, one that forced a Game 7 in Denver on Sunday and reestablished Minnesota as a legitimate threat to the Nuggets’ throne, this up-and-coming group was in desperate need of a reminder of how great they can be.

“I think the last three games, we (were) all down on ourselves, just trying to point the finger, blame somebody,” said Edwards, who had 27 points, four assists, four rebounds and a team-best plus-43 rating. “And then today before the game, the coaches and the whole staff did a great job of putting a clip together (of) the plays that we made in the two games that we won against these guys. Everybody started to believe after that little edit that they put together, and I could tell the energy shifted. …So that was big time. I told them, ‘That was big time putting that edit together.’”

This, in essence, was their version of “Rocky II.” That’s the Timberwolves’ hope, anyway.

As folks often forget, Rocky Balboa lost a split decision to Apollo Creed in the first iteration of the classic boxing flick. Minnesota’s five-game loss to Denver in the first round of last year’s playoffs wasn’t quite that close, but it was a loss nonetheless. The goal now, as Edwards has shared before, is to exact revenge on the Nuggets in much the same way that Balboa did when he knocked out Creed in the rematch.

But a team’s mood matters and the Timberwolves entered Game 6 in a battle with the same sort of psychological demons that dogged Denver after those first two games. Not only had they gone from winning their first six postseason games to dropping three in a row, but they’d been without veteran point guard Mike Conley for Game 5 after he suffered a right Achilles tendon injury late in Game 4. The film, Conley told The Athletic, was the kind of thing that helped them all remember that they were fully capable of putting Denver down for good.

“Normally we have a (film) edit, just with certain offensive possessions,” said Conley, who had 13 points (5-of-9 shooting overall; 3-of-6 from 3-point range), five assists, four rebounds, no turnovers and a plus-26 rating. “This edit was more of a production, one of those that show all the big dunks and highlights and the ball movement and with music behind it. It was a surprise. We’ll usually see the defensive stuff and offensive stuff, but this time they plugged it up to the big speaker. We normally don’t have anything plugged into the big speakers, just the (film) and coach will be talking over it. But this was more of a change-our-mentality sort of thing. It was the last thing we saw before going out, with like 25 (minutes left) on the clock. It was one of those where they show it, and then everybody just gets together and claps it up and brings it in.”

The vibe, Conley made clear, was a stark contrast to the days that had come before.

“I think overall our mood might have been a little bit tense — tight,” he continued. “You could see it in the way we played the last few games when guys weren’t as free as they should be. They should shoot certain shots, and then they’d pass them up. Guys were pressing a little bit too much. And that environment kind of led to us being a little bit tight, and quiet, in the locker room. We’re normally very alive, laughing, funny, joking, doing all that stuff. It’s not fun losing, but we still can keep our energy and vibe the way we want it. I think tonight, we got that back.”

Make no mistake, it wasn’t an instant fix. The Nuggets went up 9-2 in those first four minutes, with the sellout crowd of 19,187 growing more anxious all along the way. But the 27-2 Minnesota run that followed was the Timberwolves at their best, with Edwards scoring 14 points in that span and their unrelenting defense forcing the Nuggets into 1-of-9 shooting (along with four turnovers). Jamal Murray, who finished a disastrous 4-of-18 from the field with Edwards hounding him for most of the night, missed all three of his shots in that stretch.

The Timberwolves led 31-14 heading into the second quarter, and they never looked back. Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota big man whose defense on Nikola Jokić (22 points, nine rebounds, two assists and a minus-25 mark) was a massive factor in Game 6 just as it had been earlier in the series, also cited the pre-game film session as a pivotal moment.

“I think it just made us realize the swag (that) I felt we lost in the last three games,” said Towns, who had 10 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and a plus-25 mark. “Just to kind of visually see it, to see the way we play — the desperation, the toughness, the physicality, the emotion, and also the discipline, the execution, the tenacity. I think that we were lacking that for the last three games, and I thought that we did a great job — coaches and the staff, all the way from the top to the bottom — did a great job getting those edits, getting that film made. What a great time to pull that trick out of the hat.”

It’s a good story, to be sure. But the Timberwolves’ turnaround had as much to do with Conley’s return as anything else.

The 36-year-old has long since established himself as indispensable to these Timberwolves, the kind of player whose presence is always cherished and whose absence is always felt. But he’s also widely known to be one of the most humble players in the entire Association. So when I asked Conley to share his view of what else helped the Timberwolves bounce back, beyond the pre-game video that so many players ultimately talked about, his answer was as surprising as the outcome of the game itself.

“I mean, I came back,” he told The Athletic with a laugh. “That helps a lot, honestly.”

The confidence is well-deserved.

For as great as Edwards already is, the 22-year-old showed in Game 4 that he needs an experienced floor general like Conley around to direct traffic in the kind of way that unleashes his best traits. Driving lanes open when Conley is spacing the floor, or when he’s telling his teammate where to go on the hardwood. All is right in the Timberwolves’ world.

Never mind the fact Conley himself wasn’t sure he’d be able to even play in Game 6.

Two days before tipoff, he was struggling to walk. Yet as the game neared, Conley said, he deemed it necessary to project confidence with his teammates that were lacking sorely in that particular category. Even if, in reality, he had no idea what might happen next.

“I came in the locker room, and (his teammates were) like, ‘How you feel?’” Conley told The Athletic. “I’m like, ‘Not good, but great.’ That’s my phrase. So they’re all like, ‘Ah ok, let’s go!’ That was this morning when they’re checking on me. ‘Are you gonna play? Are you gonna be ready to go?’ I’m like, ‘There’s no question.’

“But honestly, I didn’t know for sure. I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta test it out. I’ve got to figure it out. But I’m just like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m playing. Let’s go.’ And you could just feel everybody being like, ‘OK, cool.’ I think it was just a breath of fresh air that we were getting our guys back and were ready to go.”

The mystery of what might come next is the best part of it all.

On the one side, these defending champion Nuggets have already shown their deep sense of competitiveness and pride. They dropped those first two games in embarrassing fashion, then used that team dinner in Minneapolis heading into Game 3 as a chance to remind one another why their group is so special. On the other, you have this Timberwolves squad that was built with the Nuggets in mind and which — at its best — looks so capable of winning the whole thing.  Yet only one, as is always the case, will have their arm raised at the end.

Sunday can’t come quickly enough.

(Photo: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

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