Chip Scoggins
See more of the story

This time, the mission doesn't feel hopeless.

Unlike recent seasons, when the Timberwolves gave us little reason to express confidence in the postseason, these players maturing before our eyes and uniting together must be taken seriously.

This growth alone won't be enough to topple the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals that begin Saturday, but it's a starting point.

This is too: The Wolves won't be overmatched in talent. Their ceiling is high enough that their playoff run could extend into June. The question is whether the Wolves can consistently play at their peak, or close to it, throughout this series.

By just about any measure, this Wolves squad is better than the version that lost to the Nuggets in five games last postseason. The Wolves are deeper, healthier, more cohesive and better defensively this time.

This has the makings of a classic playoff tussle. The champ and the worthy challenger.

"I've been saying it for the last few years: We are a unique team," center Rudy Gobert said. "When we are the best version of ourselves, we truly believe that we can accomplish anything."

The Wolves have a path to victory in this series. Here is a blueprint:

Wolves defensive stranglehold

The Wolves were the NBA's best defensive team this season. The Suns will attest to that. A four-game sweep of Phoenix highlighted the Wolves' ability to take away an opponent's strength by using their size, length and on-ball pressure as a disrupting force.

The defining moment of that series came late in Game 4. The Suns made eight passes on one possession as all five Wolves players worked in concert to take away shots and driving lanes. They kept rotating and using hard close-outs until the eighth pass ended in a steal.

"That's Minnesota basketball right now," point guard Mike Conley said.

The Nuggets have the best player in the world in Nikola Jokic. Limiting his supporting cast, most notably Jamal Murray, is paramount in hindering Jokic's ability to control the game like a puppet master.

The Wolves must walk a tightrope between being physical without fouling. Their size and defensive toughness can wear on a team, even one as talented as the Nuggets.

Ant the playmaker

Anthony Edwards has reached superstar status. The Suns series became his own personal launching pad. His knack for delivering a knockout blow by putting the team on his back for a dazzling spurt or an entire quarter is something special.

The evolution of Edwards as a playmaker has allowed him to elevate to this level. Knowing when to attack and when to set up teammates. He walked that line skillfully against a Suns defense that tried to force him into a trap.

Phoenix had two or three players in position to help whenever Edwards put the ball on the floor. Rather than force the issue in search of his own scoring, Edwards repeatedly made the right play with a drive-and-dish approach that showed trust in his teammates.

He still averaged 31 points in the series, along with team-leading 6.3 assists. That balance in his game makes the Wolves much more difficult to defend.

Pack of Wolves

The Wolves are capable of winning multiple ways, not just by one script.

They can win on the strength of their defense. Or with Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns taking over. Or with their complementary players stepping into leading roles.

Their versatility makes them a complete team. There is no discernible drop-off when backups Naz Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker check in to the game.

Depth matters in a long playoff series.

Control the chaos

The Wolves were an immature team when they faced the Nuggets in the playoffs last season. Their whining to the officials was counterproductive and led them to focus on the wrong things.

They have done a much better job controlling their emotions this season, particularly in the Suns series, and not allowing negative plays to cause them to unravel.

Mental toughness will be just as important as their physical tone in this series. Calls will go against them. Jokic will get his share of free throw opportunities. Emotions will run hot in closely contested games.

The Wolves cannot afford to get sidetracked by nonsense. The Nuggets pounce when that happens. This will be the ultimate test of the Wolves' improved maturity.

"They're a team that wears you down," Conley said. "You've got to be able to withstand all the things that they throw at you."

If they are successful at that, they will win this series.