The Denver Nuggets emerged this season, earning their first playoff appearance since 2013, with a team featuring one, doughy all-star and a lot of other solid rotation players. They lack the high-flyers of other top teams, but compensate with a horde of savvy plug-in pieces, one of who may erupt to join Nikola Jokic at any given moment.
That mix has amalgamated into a idiosyncratic 54-win team, but one few believed to be a serious title threat in an era where superstars are stacked and even LeBron James couldn’t crack the postseason. Despite its No. 2 seed in the West, Denver hasn’t earned much respect among West contenders.
So far, the Nuggets haven’t been able to shake that reputation. Thursday’s 120-103 defeat in Game 6 left them tied up at three games each against the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs. A Game 7 loss would be enough to rekindle a narrative they’ve spent all year trying to disprove.
Think back to last year’s Houston Rockets. That team had the league’s best record and point differential, outscoring opponents by nearly three points per 100 possessions more than the Golden State Warriors. Houston set three-point shooting records, possessed a historically fantastic offense with stellar spacing and shooting, and led wire-to-wire in the regular season. Yet, one year removed, the Rockets are most remembered for 27 straight three-point misses and losing to the Warriors in Game 7.
At least those Rockets were actually on the doorstep of a Finals appearance. The Nuggets will fall down a much greater rabbit hole if they fall to these Spurs in the first round. Those are the stakes for Denver in Saturday’s Game 7 at home.
If all fails, Jokic will at the least have proven his star-power to be transferrable to the postseason. In six games, Denver’s lone all-star averaged 23.5 points on 53 percent shooting, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Had San Antonio not dominated offensively, Game 6 would’ve been his first signature playoff moment. Powering through the Spurs interior with his floppy, boneless, body, Jokic scored 43 points on 19-of-30 shooting, with 12 rebounds and nine assists. He was unquestionably the best player on the floor. Alas, it won’t be remembered that way.
Jokic’s reputation isn’t the only one on the line. Paul Millsap, a one-time leader for an Atlanta Hawks team that eventually proved to be the very facade they hoped not to be, is a key contributor to these Nuggets. He may be more underrated than ever these days, but the masses won’t care about that if Denver fails to go deep. Jamal Murray is a young point guard who is equal parts brilliant and frustrating. Will Barton and Monte Morris are two former second-round picks out to guilt those who passed on them. Head coach Mike Malone is, for the first time in six tries, coaching a playoff team. Their positive rises will be tainted by a Game 7 defeat.
In one sense, Denver’s window to make the Finals — or simply the conference Finals — should all the way open with the sun beaming down, win or lose. Jokic is back longterm, Millsap is back if Denver wants him. Murray, Morris, Beasley, Harris, Barton, and even 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. — a highly touted prospect who slipped to Denver in last year’s draft due to back problems — will all return. Denver shouldn’t change anything it does drastically, because this team is still damn good.
But fair or unfair, the Nuggets’ reputation as a mere Regular-Season Team will bloom if they can’t beat these Spurs. These Spurs don’t have Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, or Tony Parker. Gregg Popovich and staff are running old-school offensive players like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay in tandem with unrecognizable faces to the finish line. The Spurs are still quite good, but they’re more past than future.
If the Nuggets can’t topple the team of three years ago, can they really be the team of three years from now?