Jim Souhan
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DENVER - In Chris Finch's first full season as their head coach, the Timberwolves won 46 games and made the playoffs, losing to Memphis in the first round.

Then the Wolves started thinking big.

They lured president of basketball operations Tim Connelly away from the Nuggets with a lucrative contract.

Connelly went big in a more literal way, trading a large package of draft picks and players for the best defensive big man in basketball, 7-1 center Rudy Gobert.

Connelly and Finch placed Gobert alongside 7-foot All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Many NBA teams were featuring small lineups. The Wolves wanted to make them all look like Lilliputians.

After a season featuring significant injuries and a lesser version of Gobert, Connelly's plans began to look prescient in 2023-2024. The Wolves competed for the top seed in a loaded Western Conference, settled for third, then produced the most dominant playoff performance in franchise history, sweeping a talented Suns team.

After three straight losses to the Nuggets and star center Nikola Jokic, now the Wolves have to worry whether their massive frontline is big enough, or dominant enough, to take them any farther than the conference semifinals.

After two games of being frustrated by the Wolves' swarming defense, the Nuggets turned to Jokic not only to pass, rebound and score, but to bring the ball upcourt so the Wolves couldn't pressure the Nuggets guards.

In Game 5 in Denver on Tuesday night, Jokic was the best ballhandler, passer, shooter, post-up player and rebounder on the court. He has made Gobert, who is coming off an excellent season, look slow. He punished the Wolves with his passing when they double-team him, and punished them with his scoring when they don't.

The Wolves' big lineup worked exceptionally well in the regular season, and they could have secured the first seed in the West if not for Towns' late-season knee injury.

The Wolves' big lineup worked exceptionally well against the undersized Suns, and helped give them a 2-0 lead in this series.

The Gobert trade and the go-big philosophy all looked wonderful until the Nuggets had four days to find a counter to the Wolves' defense in this series.

Now, the Nuggets' one true big man is overwhelming the Wolves' front line.

There's probably not much more the Wolves can try against Jokic. If they're going to beat him, they'll have to play more efficiently on offense.

But this series does make the Wolves' future decisions fascinating.

Jokic again looks like the best player on the best team, and the Spurs' Victor Wembanyama, the 7-4 phenom, is about to become a force. Jokic and Wembanyama could be roadblocks for the go-big Wolves for years to come, which means that the Wolves will have to find more ways to complement their frontline.

They'll need Anthony Edwards to continue maturing, and become Jokic-like when dealing with intense defenses.

They'll need to let Kyle Anderson leave as a free agent. Anderson has been an important figure for the Wolves, but he's a natural power forward and the presence of Gobert, Towns and Naz Reid forced him to the small forward spot, where he is less effective. The Wolves also need to become better three-point shooters, and outside shooting is Anderson's weakness.

Whatever happens with this team defensively, there is no substitution for making shots.

The Wolves were blown out in Game 3 because they missed makeable shots, and Edwards had a poor offensive game. They lost Game 4, in part, because Towns had a terrible shooting night. They lost Game 5, in part, because Edwards had a terrible shooting night.

If the Wolves lose this series, that will not be a sign that they need to abandon their current plans. It will be a sign that they need to improve offensively, because even great defenses can be solved.

Replace Anderson with a quality three-point shooter, give Edwards another year of maturity, give the core players on this roster another year of continuity, and going big could still have the desired effect, even if Jokic and Wembanyama loom.