DENVER -- It wasn't the prettiest of victories, but there aren't any style points in the playoffs. The only thing that matters are wins, and that's what the top-seeded Denver Nuggets walked away with Tuesday night.
After falling behind by as many as 15 points, their largest deficit of the Western Conference first-round series, the Nuggets slowly chipped away and held off the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves late for a 112-109 victory in Game 5.
Denver won the series 4-1 to advance to the conference semifinals, where it will take on the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns, who knocked off the LA Clippers in Game 5 on Tuesday night. The Nuggets-Suns series starts on Saturday here at Ball Arena.
"To win a series, I don't care 8-seed, 1-seed, all that other B.S. -- to win a series in the playoffs is hard," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "So I'm really proud of our guys."
It was a slower than normal start for the Nuggets, who shot just 33.3% in the first quarter before getting going. Malone joked that the team resembled the Ball Arena crowd, which was late arriving because of unfavorable weather in the area.
Malone said the team played the first quarter like it was a regular-season game, but he credited Jamal Murray for getting things going.
"I felt Jamal made a couple of shots, and Jamal plays with so much emotion, and I think he got our team going," Malone said. "And guys off the bench got our team going, and then the crowd got really into it, which is what we need."
Murray finished with 35 points, marking his seventh 35-point playoff game. In Nuggets playoff history, only Nikola Jokic (nine) has more.
If the Nuggets are to have the same level of success against Phoenix, Murray said it has to begin with the team getting off to better starts.
"We do a great job of fighting from behind, but we don't want to be in that position in the playoffs," Murray said. "So just come out aggressive even when we're not making shots or getting the shots we want and we're missing. We got to be able to rely on our defense and get stops."
Murray had 12 points in the second quarter as the Nuggets crept back. Down the stretch, the team relied on the two-time MVP, Jokic.
Jokic finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists for his second triple-double of the series and his eighth career playoff triple-double. Only Wilt Chamberlain (nine) has more by a center in NBA playoff history. Denver improved to 29-2 this season, including playoffs, when Jokic has a triple-double.
Jokic became the fifth player in NBA history to have 25-15-10 in a clinching opportunity, joining LeBron James (2020), James Worthy (1988), Chamberlain (1967) and Oscar Robertson (1963), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
It wasn't his best night from the floor, however, as Jokic was 8-of-29 from the field; but he also went 3-of-8 on 3-pointers and 9-of-10 from the line.
Jokic came through when the Nuggets needed him the most, though. With the score tied 104-104 with under a minute to go, Jokic missed a jumper in the lane, got his rebound, missed a layup, got his rebound again and finally put in a hook shot to give the Nuggets a two-point advantage.
On the other end, Anthony Edwards missed a jumper, and Jokic snagged the rebound and pushed it upcourt. After running an action with Murray at the top of the key, Murray found a rolling Jokic at the goal, and the center hit a bucket through contact with 28.1 seconds to go. The ensuing free throw put the Nuggets up by five.
The Timberwolves answered with a 3-pointer by Mike Conley, and after two free throws by Denver forward Bruce Brown, Minnesota again scored on an Edwards layup with 3.4 seconds remaining. Jokic then put the Nuggets back up by three, making one of two free throws with 2.5 seconds left.
Minnesota had a chance to tie, but Edwards' deep 3-point attempt clanged off the back of the rim.
"He is unrelenting," Malone said of Jokic. "That guy is just a worker. Every single day. You never have to worry about Nikola Jokic showing up and doing his job. His consistency, I marvel at that sometimes. He's able to play at this level as consistently as he does. That's what separates good players from great players."
Minnesota shot 50.6% from the field to Denver's 40%, but the difference was beyond the arc and at the free throw line. Denver hit four more 3-pointers and went 32-of-36 at the free throw line -- as compared to just 19-of-25 for the Timberwolves.
"The foul line saved us tonight," Malone said.
The Nuggets now shift their focus to Phoenix, which swept them in the conference semifinals during the 2021 playoffs. Jokic was among Denver players who had high praise for the team's upcoming opponent, saying the series will be "a big challenge for us."
"I mean, probably, they are the favorites to win the championship," Jokic said. "They have an amazing group of guys. Well coached. They have Chris Paul, who is probably the best manager or general in the game. [Devin] Booker, [Kevin Durant], superstars, probably. Arguably the best players in the NBA right now. ... [Deandre] Ayton, who I really admire his game."
As the top seed, Denver has home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, which is important because it owns a 37-7 mark at home this season -- regular season and playoffs -- which is the best home winning percentage in the league through Tuesday's games.
Michael Porter Jr. said the Nuggets have to be proud of what they just accomplished while also realizing there is hopefully more in store.
"We're all very, very happy right now," Porter said. "It was a hard-fought series. I mean, even five games feels like an eternity, you know what I mean? The playoffs are a long time, but we got four down and 12 to go, so that's the goal."