The Denver Nuggets continue their improbable march toward the playoffs with a grind-it-out 88-82 win over the Portland Trailblazers.
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ ~ William Shakespeare, Henry V
Much has been made of this Denver Nuggets season. It corresponds to a general perception of the Franchise and it’s 50 years in Denver.
Always the bridesmaid.
Portland had something to play for last night, they need wins to avoid their own play-in game with Utah on Wednesday. Seeds 3 thru 8 are still undecided in the West heading into the final two days of the season. Our Nuggets could still finish as high as 6th, they own the tiebreaker with both OKC and New Orleans. Much depends on how Utah does at Golden State and Portland. The Pelicans host the Spurs on Wednesday, looking to secure the fifth seed, possibly fourth if Utah loses twice.
It would have been so much easier on everyone if the Nuggets had just lost. For nearly three-quarters of the game it looked like they would do just that.
It’s not often these Nuggets win when they score under 100 points. Over the last two seasons, it’s happened only seven times and all of those are this season. Those seven games show that the Nuggets can be defensive.
Make no mistake, last night’s game was a defensive statement by the Nuggets. They held Damian Lillard to 25 on 36% shooting (20% from three). CJ McCollum had 16 and Jusuf Nurkic added 20 and 19 rebounds.
Side note, Nurkic can laugh and smirk and stir the pot all he wants, at the end of the day, he was (-11) and Nikola Jokic was (+18). The Nuggets also won the game 88-82. Personally, I hope we get Portland in the first round, it would be gratifying on many fronts to eliminate the Blazers.
Jokic struggled to find his stroke for much of the game. It’s got to be frightening for the rest of the Division and the League that on a down night, Jokic still carried the Nuggets to victory, still got a triple-double and still had the biggest impact on the game, for either team. Nurkic seemed a beast with his 19 boards. Nikola had 20. Jusuf had 20 points, Nikola 15. Nikola dished 11 assists, Nurkic had one. Nurkic had a steal, Jokic had two. By any empirical measurement, Jokic owned his Portland counterpart, despite much bravado from Jusuf.
Also of note, the return of Gary Harris to the Nuggets lineup. Gary finished with 12 points in 17 minutes and gave the crowd and the team a boost. His driving dunk in the second energized a lethargic Nuggets squad.
Michael Malone took a technical after a Murray drive. He thought there was a foul on the play (there wasn’t). He thought there was inequity in the officiating (there was). From that point, the Nuggets outscored the Blazers by 15 and secured the win.
This team thrives on fire and adversity. Credit Malone for manufacturing some of that down the stretch.
We are watching this team, including it’s Coach grow together. Malone is learning.
This season, written off a mere 10-days ago as a disappointment, has revealed itself. This season has seen the Nuggets grow out of the 50 year malaise that has plagued them. Even in the Anthony years, the Nuggets were susceptible to bad playoff runs. First round losses dogged the Nuggets during ‘Melo’s time. Without delving into the mechanics of Anthony’s game and contribution, we can still safely say he was, along with George Karl, the focus of the underachieving Nuggets.
In 40 years of die-hard Nuggets fandom, I’ve never seen this. I’ve never seen resilience like this. Six straight wins over playoff teams. Something the Nuggets have never done before. There’s a resilience and a confidence to this particular squad that is foreign in Denver.
The Avalanche had it for a minute. The Broncos have elevated to that place. Even the Rockies 2007 team showed it before bowing to the Red Sox in the World Series.
This Nuggets team may not capture it this season. We know that if they win on Wednesday, they will finish either 6th or 7th in the West (5th is an outside possibility). Significant that there’s no chance of facing Houston in the first round. If they lose, they finish 9th. Either way, this season represents a giant step forward for this team.
It’s not the six wins, it’s how they’ve won them. They’ve won outside of their comfort zone. Given their preference, the Nuggets would score 120 with 20+ made three-points shots every night. If Houston showed us anything this year it’s that there has to be a backup plan to that dynamic. There are times when the running game can’t get on-track and the three-point shot is not falling. Previously, when that happened to this squad, they lost by 30.
This team has learned to adapt. Taking the lead from Jokic, each player is comfortable in their role. Malone, to his credit has gotten better at recognizing the strengths or weaknesses of his lineup and adjusting accordingly. His late-game substitutions recently have been outstanding (and successful).
The team’s late surge can also be attributed to the procrastination of youth. They are, after all, a very young team.
While they may not make the leap this year, they are well on the way to a legitimacy the Nuggets have never known.
Lucky for us we get to ride along.