DENVER – It takes a perfect imagination, something from the mind of a child or a Nuggets fan who stayed strong through the '90s, to envision the perfect dream.
It goes something like this: Nikola Jokic turns 23 and enters the 2018-19 season as a real-life MVP candidate; Jamal Murray shoots rainbow daggers from the edge of the midcourt logo as Colorado's response to Stephen Curry; Juancho Hernangomez becomes the Spanish Draymond Green, an antagonist everyone wants on their team and nobody wants to play against their team. The Nuggets — yes, those Nuggets — become what the Warriors are now, an offensive juggernaut that figured out how to defend along the way. Or it just takes Monday, a dream of a performance in Lower Downtown.
"I'm more excited about where this team is going — not just this season, but beyond," coach Michael Malone said after the Nuggets gave the Warriors a taste of their own medicine in a 132-110 win before a sellout crowd of 19,941 inside Pepsi Center.
When the onslaught was over, Jokic stopped in the tunnel and posed for a selfie with fans waving a Serbian flag, Jameer Nelson took Warriors fans to task and Malone prayed the Nuggets didn't exhaust their quota for 3-pointers on the season. As if the basket was the size of Grave Digger's monster truck tires, the Nuggets tied an NBA record with 24 threes. And the Nuggets did it with only nine active players — three of whom were starters under the age of 22. All-world forward Kevin Durant struggled to properly identify one.
"Her-nan-go-mez," Durant said, spelling out Juancho's name syllable by syllable, "it was probably the best game of his life (with 27 points)."
For one night, action ball returned to Pepsi Center. The sound of silence from faux Warriors fans, still bruised from hopping on a bandwagon zooming along at full speed, filled an arena that's been emptied by all the losing. And as the Nuggets built a 28-point lead with 3-ball after 3-ball, the first sellout crowd since the home opener offered up a standing ovation that felt so good to finally see.
"I'm thankful for the Nuggets fans, not the other fans that came out," Nelson said.
Dare to dream: Was this a sign of what's to come (down the road)?
"The thing I'm most proud about is we played without six players," Malone said. "No Gallo. No Faried. No Chandler. No Mudiay. No Plumlee. No Arthur."
It's uncanny how the Nuggets front office has nailed its draft picks. Even the one it just traded away — Jusuf Nurkic to Portland, in exchange for Mason Plumlee, who is expected to make his Nuggets debut Wednesday — is only a miss because they hit on another one, Jokic.
"He's doing it with a 22-inch vertical and a 5.6 40," general manager Tim Connelly said before Jokic had his second triple-double in 10 days with 17 points, 12 assists and 21 rebounds. Sharing a court with the two men who own the past three MVP awards — Curry and Durant — the Joker was the best player on it.
Monday was more of a perfect storm than a perfect dream. The Warriors rolled into town as basketball's Rolling Stones — "They've been rock stars everywhere we go," Golden State television analyst Jim Barnett said prior to tipoff — and played like roadies who had too many cold ones with the band. In the words of noted philosopher Kanye West: Remember this moment because it won't always be like this.
Golden State can coast from time to time, knowing it holds a hefty lead for the No. 1 seed and coming off Durant's emotional return to Oklahoma City. This wasn't the cutthroat Warriors. But with a core of talented players waiting its turn, this was what the Nuggets could become.
It says plenty the Nuggets turned in their finest performance of the season with Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Emmanuel Mudiay and Darrell Arthur on the bench with injuries. It says Jokic, the prodigal 21-year-old center, has a little Peyton Manning to his game: Whomever you put around him, the Joker can make them look like All-Stars. It says the Nuggets should feel comfortable trading one of their veteran wings — either Gallo or Chandler — while knowing the bottom won't fall out of their playoff push. And as the Warriors cut a 28-point lead down to nine in the fourth quarter, it says the Nuggets would need another out-of-body shooting experience just to steal a single game in a playoff series against the Warriors. They'd play four games if the playoffs started today.
But Monday was no time for a reality check. This was time to dream a basketball dream that's on the way to being realized.