DENVER — Just prior to tip, an entire arena of eyeballs focused on one man/train/superhero, LeBron James strolled to the Nuggets bench and embraced Michael Malone in a bear hug.
But give this to the New Nuggets: Aside from longtime friendships such as the one between the Nuggets coach and the Cavaliers’ megastar, Denver no longer concerns itself with the name on your jersey or the MVP awards on your resume. Too naïve to know any better, the Nuggets come at you with a full head of steam and the most valuable quality in sports, belief.
"There's a lot of great things in store for this team," Malone said after the Nuggets whipped the world champion Cavaliers, 126-113, Wednesday night at Pepsi Center.
Despite the leap they’ve taken this season, however, a looming question remains: Can a franchise like the Nuggets truly contend in a league whose solar system revolves around superteams? Where James snaps his fingers and the Cavs fire off a bat signal for the best available center, shooting guard or wing defender? Whatever the king desires, your honor.
“The way the league has gone now — with superteams and guys joining up, like the old Wonder Twins and superheroes joining forces — it leaves a lot of the other teams kind of saying, ‘How do we get in that race, the arms race?’” said Malone, who worked in James’ court for five seasons as a Cleveland assistant.
In the NBA, the Cavs are the Haves, the Nuggets the Have Nots. It has been that way for decades, the Haves going wherever the superstars go, the Nuggets going for lightning in a bottle. In Oakland and Cleveland, they built Superteams. In Denver, only super dreams.
So the Nuggets are going about this operation in a manner the league has never seen. They've identified players — gifted, selfless players — who desire to play here, in a city that forever has been viewed as NBA flyover country, both because they are too young to know better or because Denver is a cozy spot that reminds of their European hometowns. They figure, Why not here? It was in the second quarter Wednesday when Juancho Hernangomez, all 21 years of him, faced up James and drove to the basket. The shot rimmed out and possession changed hands, but one of these days he’ll make that shot and Pepsi Center will erupt for the home team. Then it was Jamal Murray’s turn. The rookie guard splashed three consecutive 3-pointers, pausing only to fire off a blue arrow. Then there was Jokic, and the Nuggets have their superstar. His back-down of James in the post, punctuated by a simple flip shot that turned Pepsi Center into Rucker Park, wrapped the night.
"I just tried to score," Jokic said afterward. "I didn't think about it being him."
See what I mean?
"We preach toughness, and we didn't have it," said James, a bizarre minus-30 on the plus-minus chart.
Danilo Gallinari didn't play, again, due to a bum knee, according to the team. The Nuggets are better in a free-flowing offense where the ball doesn’t stop. They’re better now without Gallo.
The Cavs finally had their entire roster, from James to Kyrie Irving to J.R. Smith (“my golf game’s not good right now,” he said before the game, a suggestion he’s still pretty relaxed about this basketball thing) to Kevin Love to the latest mercenary, Kyle Korver. Don’t cry for Cleveland.
“Guys have been in and out of the lineup,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’ve been able to hold the fort down.”
Similarly, it’s nice that Leo DiCaprio is able to find a date, Hawaii’s tourism is still strong and the Jordan family has shoes to wear. An embarrassment of riches doesn’t begin to describe the Cavs. They, along with the star-studded Warriors, don't schedule tee times until July.
The Nuggets used both superteams to wipe the floor at Pepsi Center. After drilling the Warriors by 22 in February, the Nuggets handed the Cavs a beatdown to remember, thanks to a riveting offense that is virtually impossible to stop. The Nuggets must go about contending in a different way, and they are. Even so, I asked Malone: When the superteams have first captain status, scoring first pick every year, is it possible to contend for a title elsewhere?
“I think there’s some really good young basketball teams. Teams like ourselves. Teams like Minnesota. Teams that have some really good young talent. If they can add a couple pieces, we can compete with them,” Malone said. “But that’s a great question. Moving forward, when you align three or four of the top-10 players in the NBA, those teams are hard to beat. I’m sure a lot of people are hoping for a Cleveland-Golden State final once again — three years in a row.
"But I hope we can compete with those teams. I really hope we do.”
Best-case scenario for the Nuggets: Down the road, when their youngins are all grown up, free agents see Jokic’s surreal passing and an unselfish offense and realize their 18 points per game could become 25 in Colorado. That’s when the next leap goes down at altitude.
Until then — as the Warriors and Cavs must attest — the New Nuggets fear nobody.