For once, the most intriguing wrinkle of Michael Malone’s latest Nuggets spinning wasn’t who he played. It was who he didn’t.
Offensively, Denver’s 133-107 win over Minnesota late Tuesday night in the Pepsi Center was a banner evening: A barrage of 3-pointers — 18 makes on just 30 attempts. Crisp passing and an even crisper tempo. A 19-8 advantage in second-chance points. The most aids — 40 in all — listed in one game by a Nuggets crew since 2013.
It had a little bit of everything.
Everything, that is, except for Isaiah Thomas.
Coach Michael Malone may have dropped a very small hint as to his potential postseason rotation versus the Timberwolves, which was notable on two fronts. First, that said minutes were primarily split among eight men. And second, that Thomas, the 30-year-old point guard who only returned to the fold last month, wasn’t one of those eight.
“Obviously, 16 (regular-season) games to go, (we’re going to) attempt to discover a rhythm,” said Malone, who didn’t perform Thomas at the 26-point victory. “And a rotation that I feel gives us the best opportunity to win today, and into the playoffs. ”
Thomas, who had appeared in every one of the Nuggets’ nine previous games in which he averaged 15.6 minutes, 8.6 points, 1.7 assists and 1.8 turnovers off the seat, was the only active player to not look for the home side, even after Denver extended its margin in the fourth period.
Malone said he intends on keeping the spinning smaller down the final few weeks of the regular season, and had clarified the rotation to Thomas, whom he’d previously coached in Sacramento, before the match.
“Oh, you talk to him (about the decision), and I’ll keep that conversation between IT and myself,” Malone said. “(It’s) not a simple conversation, but that’s my job. ”
A two-time All-Star, Thomas had made his Nuggets introduction on Feb. 13 against Sacramento into a thrilled Pepsi Center, which celebrated his return to an NBA floor after March 2018 hip surgery. But the 5-foot-9 vet has struggled with his shot, and his rhythm, in the eight games since — connecting on just 36.2 percent from the floor and on only 25 percent (7-for-28) from outside the 3-point arc following his first Denver appearance.
“It’s never about Isaiah. It’s never about any person,” Malone explained. “It’s about what I think is best for our team. And I made the decision to shorten the rotation, only played eight men in the first quarter. And I’m going to continue to do this for now. ”
The return of I.T. also created a problem that neither Malone nor Nuggets brass likely anticipated last summer: That Thomas would cut into possible minutes for breakout guard Monte Morris, who emerged as one of the greatest young backups in the NBA over his first full season in the league.
“Me and (starting point guard) Jamal (Murray) have got great chemistry,” noted Morris, who finished with 16 points, six assists, five rebounds and four 3-point makes off the bench against the Wolves. “(We) played a lot together in the summer, as (you) know. So when he comes in, we’t just got a fantastic feel for one another. ”
Tuesday was the second straight contest of at least 15 points and five dimes for the former Iowa State star. It was the first time Morris has produced stat lines at least 15 points and 5 assists in back-to-back looks since Feb. 1-2, with this instant performance highlighting a 107-106 victory in Minnesota. For now, Morris is likely to continue to get important minutes going forward, health permitting. With Thomas, the short-term strategy — like his post-surgery form — looks to be more of a wait-and-see affair.
“Isaiah is a pro,” Malone said. “He was into the match, he was encouraging his teammates, he’s a competitor. I understand it’s not easy for him. But I respect his response and being such a professional (Tuesday). ”
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