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Wolves bring 2-0 lead on Nuggets into wild night at Target Center. Knicks, up 2-0, brace for Pacers

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves have been the surprise hit of the NBA playoffs, winning their first six games behind a dominant defense, clutch performances from superstar Anthony Edwards and enviable depth to fuel a relentless approach.

They did the hard part by taking the first two games of their Western Conference semifinal series in Denver from the defending champion Nuggets in commanding fashion. Now they get to take the court in front of their own crowd. Game 3 is on Friday night, a late tipoff that will only intensify the atmosphere inside the success-deprived arena.

“The fans have been great all year,” Karl-Anthony Towns said after practice on Thursday. “I’ve said it before: They have this place jumping like Prince is back.”

Having completed their first-round sweep of Phoenix with two wins on the road, the Timberwolves have not played at Target Center since April 23, a span of 17 days between home games. The team has partnered with 11 downtown bars to host watch parties. Ticket prices on the secondary market were starting in the $250 range for single seats near the rafters, as of Thursday afternoon.

Just about the buzz to be expected around a franchise that has not only never won an NBA title, but advanced past the first round only once in the 34 seasons prior to this.

“The city is on fire. People are super excited about this team,” coach Chris Finch said. “It’s a team that’s easy to root for because of the way they play. They play hard. They share the ball. I think we have a lot of good guys who play with a lot of personality.”

In the history of the NBA playoffs, including the Nuggets, 30 teams have lost the first two games at home in a best-of-seven series, according to Sportradar research. Only five of them came back to win, with the Los Angeles Clippers the most recent in a 2021 first-round rally past Dallas.

The Nuggets are confident they can be the sixth. But they’ll have to find a way to start fast, minimize the crowd noise and avoid the uncharacteristic frustration they wore throughout their 106-80 loss in Game 2. Point guard Jamal Murray, who has just 25 points in the series on 9-for-32 shooting, was fined $100,000 for throwing a heat pack onto the court.

“Even if we do lose the first quarter,” Murray said, “just the intent, the energy, the focus to get it done I think is big.”

The New York Knicks won’t be as desperate when they take the floor in Indianapolis for Game 3 earlier in the evening. They’ve got a 2-0 lead on the Pacers, who, if they weren’t as flustered in Game 2 as the Nuggets were on their home floor, are carrying some discouragement of their own. Coach Rick Carlisle voiced their displeasure with the officiating after the 130-121 loss in New York.

“They smashed us on the boards again,” guard T.J. McConnell said, “and brought more energy than we did so we have to fix that.”

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KNICKS AT PACERS

New York leads 2-0. Game 3, 7 p.m. EDT, ESPN

— NEED TO KNOW: Carlisle doesn’t complain often about officiating, but after two physical games in New York he felt his team got the short end of the whistles and publicly called out the refs. The Pacers backed him by sending 78 plays to the league office for review, and now all eyes will be on the foul totals when the series shifts to Indiana’s home court.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: Rebounding. Even before this Eastern Conference semifinal series started, Carlisle said repeatedly his team needed to match New York’s ruggedness around the rim. But in the second halves of the first two games, the Pacers frequently failed to finish defensive stops because they couldn’t come up with key rebounds. The Knicks have an 84-66 edge on the glass in the series.

— INJURY WATCH: Knicks All-Star guard Jalen Brunson, who missed the final 15 minutes of the first half in Game 2 with a right foot injury, returned for the second half to play through the discomfort. He’s listed as questionable. The Knicks have ruled out forward OG Anunoby with an injured left hamstring, thinning a rotation that’s already shortened by the absence of Julius Randle, Bojan Bogdanovic and Mitchell Robinson. The Pacers listed All-Star Tyrese Haliburton as questionable with lower back spasms.

— PRESSURE IS ON: Carlisle. The Pacers’ first-round triumph over Milwaukee required wins in all three of their home games and gave Carlisle a playoff series victory for the first time since he led the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship.

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NUGGETS AT TIMBERWOLVES

Minnesota leads 2-0. Game 3, 9:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN

— NEED TO KNOW: After recording the franchise’s first four-game series sweep in the first round against the Suns, the Timberwolves are halfway to another one. They’ll get four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert back, too, after he missed Game 2 for the birth of his son.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: Edwards and Towns. The All-Star duo has five playoff games with 25-plus points apiece, a franchise record.

— INJURY WATCH: Murray has been playing through a strained left calf. He’s listed as questionable for Game 3 for the Nuggets, along with guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (bruised right abdomen) and backup Reggie Jackson (bruised left calf).

— PRESSURE IS ON: Nikola Jokic. The announcement of his third NBA MVP award came at an awkward time with the Nuggets reeling from their Game 2 meltdown. The Serbian superstar had only 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting in Game 2.

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AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in New York and AP Sports Writers Michael Marot in Indianapolis and Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Sports Writer

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