After clinching their first playoff berth in more than half a decade, the Denver Nuggets were in the mood to celebrate their accomplishment. Not in the wild irresponsible way of youth that you might expect from one of the youngest teams in the league. Rather, the Nuggets were in a reflective headspace befitting their long, circular journey to the postseason.
Gary Harris recalled being booed off the court in his rookie season during a game against Portland. Will Barton, who was on the Blazer side that night, remembered all the close games they’ve been through over the years since when they weren’t quite tough enough to put teams away.
As evidence of their turnaround, Barton needed only to point to the past week when they won two games at the buzzer. Their ballsy win over the Celtics on Boston’s home floor to clinch the postseason berth spoke for itself.
“We’ve been in those situations so many times the last couple of years,” Barton said. “We haven’t always rose to the occasion. Years ago, teams were tougher than us when it got down to winning time, and now we’re doing what we need to do to close those games out.”
Fresh in everyone’s minds was the way the last two seasons ended in disappointment. Denver finished one game out of the postseason tournament in 2017, and did so again last year with an agonizing overtime loss on the final day of the season to Minnesota. That experience drove them through their summer workouts and led them to a definitive conclusion that would define their season: never again.
“Last year was heartbreaking,” Barton said. “Coming into training camp we said we don’t want to wait until the end of the season to try to make a run. We felt like we had enough talent to be one of those teams you know is going to the playoffs, not hoping and wishing. To accomplish that on the road against a good team, it couldn’t be any sweeter.”
It’s easy to feel good about the Nuggets because in an era dominated by ad-hoc superteams, they represent a charming anachronism. With more than half their roster assembled through the draft, the Nuggets are a homegrown team that developed organically through trial and tribulation. They are a study in patience and perseverance.
Rather than get freaked out by the near misses, the Nuggets quietly re-signed Barton over the summer and locked in an extension for emerging star Nikola Jokic. They also extended coach Michael Malone’s contract, who has overseen the gradual transformation of a team that went from 33-to-40-to-46 wins in his first three seasons.
“The word that jumps to mind is continuity,” Malone told me. “You have to give a lot of credit to (team president) Josh Kroenke and the front office. In today’s day and age everyone wants instant gratification and they want to make changes and go for a quick fix. We never once felt like we had to trade young players and assets to get a star by mortgaging our future. We’ve stayed with it, we drafted well.”
Denver has drafted well and it’s not as if general manager Tim Connelly spent the last five years picking from the cream of the lottery crop. With the exception of Jamal Murray, who was chosen seventh, the rest of the homegrown Nuggets were selected in the middle of the first round and even later.
Jokic, who should be on everyone’s MVP shortlist, was a second-round pick. As was Monte Morris, who might be the best backup point guard in the league. Harris, who has emerged as a frontline wing, was picked 19th way back in 2014. His backup, Malik Beasley, was also selected 19th a few years later.
The Nuggets are so deep in young talent that when Isaiah Thomas struggled in his return, Malone didn’t even wait 10 games before pulling the plug on the IT experiment. It was a tough, but critical, choice for a coach who has already shortened the rotation from a dozen worthy candidates down to eight or nine players.
“It’s never about any individual,” Malone said. “It’s about me making decisions that are best for our team.”
A healthy Thomas would have been an interesting luxury item for this team, but his scoring hasn’t been necessary. Jokic, Harris, and Murray already form the core of a team that should remain together for the next few years. This is merely the start of their run, not the end point.
“We felt like last year we were on the verge of doing something special,” Malone said. “We believe in this group. We’ve seen them grow. Let’s see it through. A lot of times people want to go for that home run. It’s OK to hit singles and doubles, man. Get ‘em on base, put guys in scoring position.”
The Nuggets’ trajectory reminds Malone of Golden State’s rise earlier in the decade, where Malone served as an assistant coach under Mark Jackson. Long before they emerged as a dynasty, the Warriors earned their stripes through a series of near-misses and almost breakthroughs. When it was time to make a free-agent move, they signed Andre Iguodala, who proved to be one of the essential elements of their championship core.
When it was Denver’s turn to sign a veteran free agent to push this young core over the top, the Nuggets spent their money on Paul Millsap. The Lincoln Continental of power forwards, Millsap is never flashy, always savvy, and built with more features than you’d expect. He’s their best defender and heir to David West as the league’s ultimate grownup.
Millsap’s presence is most keenly felt at the end of games when his steady cool sets the tone for a team that’s finally learned how to win. In a crucial win over Indiana last week, Millsap passed up a jumper and drove into the teeth of the Pacer defense where he was rewarded with a game-winning bucket. The game before against Dallas it was Jokic who hit the game-winner on a twisting shot, aided by Millsap pinning the help defender under the basket.
Jokic may be the superstar in training with Millsap serving as the fulcrum of a vastly improved defense, but Denver is at its best when everyone is contributing. They rank second behind the Warriors in assist percentage and it’s that egalitarian style that makes them dangerous. In a win over the Wizards, they had five players score a game-high 15 points each and eight of their nine rotations players were in double figures.
“It’s a selfless team,” Harris said. “We share the ball, we play for each other. It’s a talented team. It could be anybody’s night. We continue to play the right way, good things are going to happen.”
No matter how many good things happen during the regular season, few people have talked about the Nuggets as a legitimate contender in the West. That changes now.
They have a shot at securing the top seed in the West and will be no worse than second when the playoffs start. Denver has the league’s third-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense along with the fourth best net rating. All those metrics are marks of a contender, albeit one that lacks postseason seasoning. Millsap and Barton are the only players in the rotation with any playoff experience.
“You can’t put a dollar sign on (playoff) experience,” Malone says. “You can’t simulate playoff basketball. We can talk about it. Until you’re on the court and you’re in those playoff games and understand that every possession matters, that experience is going to be a great teacher.”
That’s the final lesson for these Nuggets. While a first-round loss would be unacceptable, everything about this postseason becomes a graduate-level crash course in handling pressure and adversity. That’s how cultures are built.
For the Nuggets, it’s been a gradual and occasionally painful process. But they’re finally where they wanted to be, with a playoff berth secure and dreams of a future that are more reality than fantasy. Now they need to make something of the opportunity.
As Jokic put it, “It’s 16 teams making the playoffs. It’s not that special. We want to do something more.”
Consumable NBA Thoughts
Unlike past seasons, the first round of the NBA playoffs promises to deliver a bit of drama and maybe an upset or two. We’ll have a 4-5 matchup in the East between two 50-ish win teams, and with little separation out West, the right matchups could swing the bracket in wild directions. Here are five I’d like to see.
Whatever hope we had of getting this series probably evaporated after Philly finally got a win against the C’s on Wednesday. Barring collapses and unexpected turnarounds, the Sixers are headed for the third seed while Boston will be locked into the dreaded 4-5 matchup with the Pacers. That’s a shame because the level of salt between these two is absolutely phenomenal. We’ll have to wait for a possible conference final.
There was a brief period a couple of weeks ago when the Pistons looked like an honest-to-goodness sleeper in the East. Then they went back to being the Pistons again, but not before beating the Raptors for the third time this season. Call it Dwane Casey’s revenge. If the Raptors are going to exorcise their demons, what better place to start than with their ex-coach’s new team. Also the two fanbases can argue about who’s more north.
Of all the possible first-round scenarios, this is the one that scares the hell out of the Nuggets because the Jazz just matchup really, really well with Denver. From a basketball nerd perspective, who wouldn’t want to see Nikola Jokic battle Rudy Gobert for seven games? Give us that, plus Denver’s bevy of wing defenders trying to slow down Donovan Mitchell and we’ll have a first-round series worth staying up late to watch.
Golden State-Los Angeles
Way back in 2014, the Clippers were the last team to beat Golden State in the Western Conference playoffs. Golden State fired Mark Jackson after that season, hired Steve Kerr and never looked back. The Clippers, meanwhile, went through all the turbulence and failed promise of the Lob City era only to come out the other side with a gritty bunch of grizzled vets. No one seriously thinks the Warriors would lose this one, but the Clips would leave a mark.
These two have spent the season jockeying for the unofficial title of Team That Could Give Golden State Problems in the Postseason. OKC looked like that team behind MVP candidate Paul George until the Rockets turned it on down the stretch behind MVP candidate James Harden. Having them meet in the first round seems rather cruel and pointless, but that’s the way this season has gone.
THE STATS THAT EXPLAIN THE WEEK
Late in overtime of a game against Phoenix, the New Orleans Pelicans called a timeout they didn’t have resulting in a technical foul. Devin Booker made the two free throws and we have a new entrant in the tanking Hall of Fame. Equally absurd was the Pels’ refusal to foul up three, which resulted in a Josh Jackson 3-pointer that tied the game and led to the timeout. New Orleans play-by-play man Joel Meyers’ call on this is absolutely outstanding, by the way. It’s the voice of every exasperated dad.
After sticking a signature 20-foot fadeaway jump shot, Dirk Nowitzki moved past Wilt Chamberlain for sixth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. It’s an impressive accomplishment and puts a wonderful cap on the future Hall of Famer’s legacy. The best thing about Dirk’s so-called farewell tour is he’s given no indication that he’ll actually retire in the offseason. He’s the rare player who has enjoyed every moment to its fullest. Play as long as you want, Dirk. It’s nobody’s career but you’re own.
After putting 57 points on the Grizzlies, James Harden has now crossed the 50-point barrier seven times this season. That’s the most since Kobe Bryant went scorched earth on the league in 2006-07 with 10 such games. The only other players to eclipse Harden’s mark are Michael Jordan, who did it eight times in 1986-87 and Wilt Chamberlain who did it 45 (FORTY-FIVE TIMES!) in 1961-62. When you keep company with Wilt, MJ, and Kobe you’ve reached singular scorer status. And then Harden went and dropped 61 on the Spurs after this blurb had already been written. Yeesh.
Rare is the in-game graphic that can actually surprise as well as inform, but the note that the Spurs have had a losing record for all of 65 days since the 1997-98 season was just such an event. As impressive as that number is on its own, the real surprise is found in the context of the achievement. The next closest team is the Rockets at over 1,000 days. That’s absurd. It’s an interesting question if the Spurs true accomplishment under Gregg Popovich has been the four championships or the two decades of consistent excellence.
Steph Curry hit his 300th 3-pointer of the season this past week, the third time in his career that he’s made more than 300 in a season. Before Curry came along, 300 made 3’s was a milestone no one considered important because it was so far out of the reach. The only other player to go over 300 is James Harden, this year. Curry will pass Reggie Miller for second place all time in 3-pointers made next season and will have Ray Allen in his sights before too long. Curry has completely rewired everyone’s brain on the 3-point shot.