DENVER (AP) — Sending LeBron James to his earliest playoff exit was harder than it looked, and Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone doesn’t foresee the next step in their title defense getting any easier.

Not with the likes of Karl Anthony-Towns, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards up next when the Minnesota Timberwolves visit the Mile High City this weekend for the start of their second-round series.

Malone’s relieved that the Nuggets don’t have to return to L.A. to close out the Lakers and instead can focus on rest and recovery after a hard-fought series in which they trailed most of the time before facing the Timberwolves, who completed their sweep of the Suns on Sunday.

This might have been the hardest 4-1 series win in NBA history. The Nuggets trailed by double digits in the first four games and by nine Monday night before their championship chutzpah once again showed up just in time.

“They’re not an easy out,” Malone said after Jamal Murray’s second game-winner of the series gave Denver a 108-106 win over the Lakers in Game 5 Monday night. “LeBron James is arguably the greatest player of all-time. Anthony Davis is a Hall of Famer. And they gave us all we could handle.

“We did not want to get on that plane going back to L.A. And so now we can try to get ready for Saturday against a beast in Minnesota,” Malone said. “But I’ve got to give the Lakers a lot of credit. Man, that was a hard-fought series, a lot harder than 4-1 might indicate because we had to scrap for every game that we won in this series.”

The Timberwolves are coming off their first series win since 2004 and the first sweep in the franchise’s history.

“Give Minnesota credit, they handled their business,” Malone said.

So did the Nuggets, even though it wasn’t pretty much of the time, save for Murray’s clutch shooting, Nikola Jokic’s usual dominance and Michael Porter Jr.’s steady spectacular play despite dealing with family drama that includes one brother going to jail and another getting banned by the NBA.

Management wanted Murray to sit this one out lest he aggravate his strained left calf, but Murray would have none of it and he went out and sparked Denver’s series-clincing win with a gutsy performance.

“He’s a tough shot maker,” Jokic said. “I think he makes more tough shots that easy, open looks. I think he loves those moments, those situations and I’m very confident in him that he’s going to make the shot.”

Another starter, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, turned an ankle and the Nuggets found it much harder to beat the Lakers this year than they did in dispatching them in the Western Conference finals last summer.

“I believe in my guys,” Jokic said, “and I think the toughness right now in the playoffs, it’s not even a question, to be honest.”

Now the second-seeded Nuggets face a third-seeded Timberwolves team that gave them a tough test in the playoffs last year despite a roster riddled with injuries.

The Nuggets finally found their long-range shooting touch just in time Monday night, sinking 16 3-pointers, six more than Los Angeles, and they held the Lakers to 52 points in the paint after allowing an average of 71 in two games in L.A.

“There’s so much room for improvement,” Malone said. “It was great to see us finally make some 3s tonight, 16 for 38. That has been a real area where we have struggled, not because they weren’t good looks but because they weren’t going down.

“We can get better and we’re going to have to get better because Minnesota was the No. 1 team in the West for most of the year,” Malone said. “And it’s going to be a hard-fought series and I’m sure they’re going to want revenge from last season.”

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