Jim Souhan
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DENVER - Anthony Edwards is 22. That's a fact. It can also be interpreted as a promise, or an excuse.

For too much of Tuesday night, it approximated his shooting percentage.

In the biggest game of his career, Edwards found himself trading shots with the best player in the world, which is another way of saying that, however promising he is, Edwards is not yet close to being the best player in the world.

On a night when Nikola Jokic received his third MVP award and proceeded to put on a stunning display of offensive dexterity, Edwards was passive early, inaccurate later and ineffective overall in the face of the Denver Nuggets' smothering defense in the Timberwolves' 112-97 loss to the Nuggets in Game 5 at Ball Arena.

The Nuggets flanked Edwards with defenders all night, leaving him with nowhere to go with the ball.

With starting point guard Mike Conley out with a strained Achilles tendon, Edwards was charged with starting and finishing the offense. He handled the former far better than the latter.

He produced nine assists, proving he was willing to make the right play, but when the Wolves were forced to call timeout after a Jokic dunk with 7:12 left in the game, Edwards had four turnovers and three made field goals.

Wolves coach Chris Finch defended Edwards. Edwards admitted he had never seen a defense quite so effective and focused.

What is being asked of Edwards — to outplay Jokic and outmaneuver a veteran defense — is both unfair and necessary.

And while Finch, Edwards and the rest of the Wolves can excuse his inaccurate shooting, he is not the first star basketball player to face a swarming defense.

Take Jokic. He's being defended by the four-time defensive player of the year (Rudy Gobert), or an athletic 7-footer with long arms (Karl-Anthony Towns) and an athletic power forward (Naz Reid), as well as the top-rated defensive team in the NBA, and he has cracked the Wolves' code.

Tuesday, he made 15 of 22 shots to finish with 40 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds, two steals and a block.

"I mean, you saw it," Finch said. "MVP, best player in the world performance."

"It was crazy," Edwards said.

Edwards made five of 15 shots, scoring 18 points with nine assists, four rebounds, a steal and those four turnovers.

In two of the last three games, the Nuggets have held Edwards under 20 points, which is one of the many reasons Denver has won three straight.

At the end of Game 4, which Edwards scored 43 by knifing between defenders, he saw two Nuggets players celebrating at midcourt at Target Center and told them, "keep talking." That felt like a moment when Edwards was promising to take charge of the series.

Instead, he either fumbled the ball while trying to squeeze between defenders, or passed the ball to shooters who weren't able to make Denver pay.

"We got great looks," Edwards said. "I think we handled it pretty good. We just missed open shots."

Edwards spoke in the locker room, sounding anything but discouraged.

"Super excited," he said. "You get to compete. Get to go home and play with our backs against the wall. It should be fun. Try to force a Game 7 and come back here."

The wall, in this case, was the Nuggets' defense. He could have used Conley to give him a boost.

Asked how much he missed Conley, Edwards said, "A lot. Because him and Rudy on the pick-and-roll gives us a lot of points throughout the game. His shooting ability, him attacking Jokic."

There is nothing wrong with Edwards' ambition or attitude. Asked about playing 44 minutes while handling the ball, he said, "It's fun, man. I'm getting in the best shape of my life. It's fun."

He smiled, and then admitted that was also his reaction to Jokic's magical plays: "I just laugh," he said. "That's all I can do. I can't be mad, because he's good, man. He's the MVP…I got to give him flowers."

Tuesday night, Denver's defense provided the thorns.