DENVER | Mason Plumlee was completely surrounded under the basket when he tossed a no-look pass over his head to teammate Nikola Jokic for an easy score.
Now that’s more to the liking of coach Michael Malone, who implored his players to return to their selfless ways after a bumpy stretch.
Jamal Murray scored 19 of his 30 points in the second half, Plumlee dished out eight of Denver’s season-high 40 assists and the Nuggets cruised to a 133-107 victory over the banged-up Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night.
Called out by Malone after a lackadaisical performance in a loss at Golden State last week, the Nuggets responded by playing with more intensity. It was the first time they’ve had 40 assists since April 6, 2013.
“The message was delivered. The guys embraced it, accepted it, owned it and went out and played tonight at a very high level,” Malone said.
Paul Millsap finished with 23 points, including a buzzer-beater from half-court to end the third quarter. Jokic added 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to help Denver snap a two-game slide at Pepsi Center.
The Nuggets are hanging on to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They are 5-4 since the All-Star break.
“We’re focused on the bigger picture right now,” Plumlee said. “There’s a chance to do something special.”
Karl-Anthony Towns had 34 points and 10 rebounds to pace a Timberwolves team that’s fading from playoff contention. Towns did a little bit of everything to keep the Timberwolves close until Denver pulled away in the third quarter. He had one play where he quickly applied the brakes to shake free from Jokic and then stepped back to hit a long jumper. Towns grinned on his way back down the floor.
“In boxing, Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a game plan until they get punched in the face,'” said Towns, who was back after missing a game with knee inflammation. “When we punched them in the face, they stuck to their game plan. We got punched in the face, we started getting erratic, started speeding ourselves up.”
Minnesota was light on guards with Derrick Rose (right elbow), Jeff Teague (left foot) and Andrew Wiggins (left quadriceps) all sidelined. The depleted guard situation meant more court time for Cameron Reynolds, a rookie out of Tulane who recently signed a second 10-day contract. He had 12 points in 25 minutes.
At practice Monday, Malone had a heart-to-heart with his squad. He asked them what they wanted to achieve as they march toward their first postseason appearance since 2012-13 — simply settle for getting in or challenge for the top seed. At 28-6, the Nuggets have the best home record in the Western Conference.
“I didn’t give them a chance (to answer),” Malone said. “I said I’m tired of talking. All we do is talk, talk, talk — let’s start doing.”
Malone’s message was taken to heart.
“We need to just get back to playing together, screening for each other, playing for each other, passing,” Jokic said. “Just to play for someone else.”
Timberwolves: PG Tyus Jones had 16 points.
Nuggets: G Torrey Craig hurt his left arm while blocking a shot with 14 seconds remaining. … The starters for the Nuggets were a combined plus-78. This after going minus-95 against the Warriors.
Malone shortened the rotation and guard Isaiah Thomas didn’t get into the game.
“Definitely talked to him. I’ll keep that conversation between I.T. and myself,” Malone said. “Not an easy conversation, but that’s my job. … Isaiah is a pro and was into the game, supporting his teammates.”
USING THE HEARTBREAK
The Timberwolves beat the Nuggets in overtime last season in the final game of the season to earn the last playoff spot. Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders believes that’s been a big catalyst for Denver.
“A lot of times through any type of pain or hurt, good can come out of that if you come together as a group,” Saunders said. “They’ve done a good job this year … of staying together and really pushing themselves to a new level.”
Timberwolves: At Utah on Thursday.
Nuggets: Host Dallas on Thursday. The Nuggets have won five straight at home against the Mavericks.