Let’s go ahead and get the superlatives out of the way early. That way, everyone is clear that all is not dire with the Nuggets, even after they blew a 17-point lead on their home court to lose Game 7 to the Blazers.
By every measure, Denver had a very good season. They grew by leaps and bounds.
Improving from 46 wins to 54 is a huge leap, one that is difficult to pull off in just one year. Going from out of the playoffs to the No. 2 seed in the West is also a giant jump, one that elevates the Nuggets into the conversation about the elite teams in the conference. And developing a two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, which looks like a bread-and-butter system that could blossom into a modern-day version of Stockton and Malone, is enormous.
So the future is bright. Or at least it should be.
That caveat has to be included because of what happened on Sunday at Pepsi Center. “Should” now becomes a part of the equation.
Coming into that game, the home team had won 105 out of 133 times in decisive Game 7s across the history of the NBA. So the Nuggets, who had the best home record in the league during the regular season, had a distinct advantage.
And for a little more than a quarter, they played like it, building a 39-22 lead with 7:50 to play in the second quarter. Then, the roof caved in.
For whatever reason, the Nuggets got timid. They played not to lose, rather than continuing to attack the Blazers. As a result, they gave the road team hope.
Despite shooting an abysmal 4 out of 26 from three-point range, and star guard Damian Lillard being held to 13 points, Portland was more able to pull off the improbable come-from-behind win by being more aggressive – on both ends is the floor.
Offensively, it was C.J. McCollum who took over the game. While the Nuggets playmakers – Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton – disappeared after the first quarter, the Blazers guard was unstoppable. Possession after possession, he attacked the basket, en route to a game-High 37 points.
Defensively, however, is where Portland won the game with their physical approach. They pushed and bothered Jokic, who finished with 29 points, but was 8 for 21 from the field after the first quarter. They bullied Paul Millsap, who had given them fits during the first six games of the series, into one bad shot after another, leading to a horrendous 3 for 13 shooting night. And they harassed the Nuggets backcourt into a disappearing act that David Copperfield would envy.
After a hot start, when he was aggressive and took the ball to the basket, Harris finished with only 15 points. Murray was dreadful from start to finish, going 4 for 18 on the night. Barton was once again a team-worst in plus/minus, finishing -9. And the bench duo of Malik Beasley and Monte Morris managed just five points.
That’s some next-level sphincter tightening.
But it wasn’t just the players who gagged under pressure. The Nuggets coaching staff also failed to push the right buttons, getting outmaneuvered by Terry Stotts and the Blazers staff at every turn. Perhaps spending Saturday interviewing for the open Cavaliers job wasn’t the best idea after all.
In other words, it was a team-wide collapse. And that’s what will make it a franchise-defining defeat, for better or worse.
Long-time Denver sports fans know how this goes. They’ve seen it up close and personal.
Back in January 1997, the top-seeded Broncos let the upstart Jaguars come into Mile High Stadium and upset them in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. It was a devastating loss, one that Shannon Sharpe said after the game would set the franchise back for a long time.
But a funny thing happened: Instead, that defeat turned into the fuel that propelled the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl wins the following two seasons. Avenging the loss to Jacksonville became the thing that bonded Denver into a championship-caliber team.
The Nuggets loss to the Blazers could do the same thing. The next 12 months might turn into a mission to advance to the Western Conference Finals and beyond next year.
That can be the goal that drives extra practice time, a few more shots, a little bit of work when everyone else is resting. It can be the connection that galvanizes an already tight group.
Or it can be a loss that crushes a young team’s spirit. It’s a failure that could get in their heads and make them crumble.
The Broncos avoided the latter because they had mentally tough people on their roster. Guys like John Elway, Gary Zimmerman, Mark Schlereth, Tom Nalen, Sharpe, Steve Atwater, Bill Romanowski and others didn’t crumble after the defeat.
The Nuggets are going to have to do the same thing. They have a young, exciting core group of players, one that looks like it could contend in the Western Conference for years to come. But only if Sunday’s setback generates the proper response.
People should be ticked. Losing a Game 7 at home is unacceptable, no matter the circumstances.
People should be disappointed. Blowing a chance to go to the Western Conference Finals, even if it’s “ahead of schedule,” is a missed opportunity.
And people should be worried. Collapsing on the big stage is cause for concern, despite nobody wanting to talk about it.
All of those things need to provide fuel for the fire. If that happens, much like was the case with the 1996 Broncos, a bad thing will ultimately turn out to be a good thing.
This year, the Nuggets weren’t advancing beyond the next round any way. But if they rally around the loss to the Blazers, future years could be very special in the Mile High City.
Great teams are forged from adversity. Pretenders crumble from it. What are the Nuggets going to be?
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