DENVER — Does the rest of the NBA think the Nuggets are soft?
I don’t know. Let’s ask the reigning MVP of the league, Russell Westbrook: Boooom!
With a premeditated shoulder check and arms outstretched to drive home the point, Westbrook on Tuesday night threw every one of his 200 pounds into the chest of Denver’s best player, Nikola Jokic, and the heart of a franchise. Just 92 seconds into a game. In the preseason. On their home floor, Pepsi Center.
“You mean the Flagrant 2?” Nuggets coach Michael Malone deadpanned after the game, subtly lobbying for a Westbrook ejection while making sure the would-be fine money stayed in his own pocket.
What bothered me the most: Nobody who plays for or coaches the Nuggets responded. That’s the troubling part. If franchise cornerstone Steph Curry takes a cheap shot that results in a Flagrant 1 foul, do you think Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors would turn a cheek and walk away?
The scouting report on the Nuggets is out. Instead of trying to keep pace with an offensive juggernaut, follow the lead of any good mid-major attempting to swing an upset in the NCAA Tournament: level the playing field by turning the basketball game into a wrestling match.
Will the Nuggets fight back in '17-18?
I think these Nuggets are going to be good, clean fun. In a normal conference with normal players — not one that could field an All-Star team from Denver's Northwest Division alone — I’d say they are 50-wins good. Alas, the West decided the silly Warriors weren’t enough of an obstacle, so it added Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and the dragon from Game of Thrones. The mean, frozen dragon. The Spurs would probably turn her into a Hall of Fame rim protector.
Anyway, I’m firmly at 46 wins and the No. 7 seed in the West. That would bring a playoff series against Chris Paul’s Rockets or Melo's Thunder, and either series would inject life into a dormant basketball community that last season ranked dead last in NBA attendance. Denver has the talent in place to get there, if Paul Millsap (another Eastern Conference transplant) adds the most important element to a defense, pride. One thing these Nuggets won't be is boring. Malone complains that they are eerily quiet in practice, to the point he asks if they’ve had their coffee, and that worries me, but they’ve built a very likable team.
Know what’s not fun? Getting beat up. What could prevent their first playoff appearance since 2013 is the Nuggets getting beat up. It should be a bright red flag and uncomfortable film room when they roll back the tape of Jokic getting popped by Westbrook and not a single player in pearly home white jerseys rushing over to the Joker's aid and popping Westbrook right back.
“Within the rules,” as Malone said.
"We don't have the 'Bad Boys,'" he added.
No sports league in America operates on a foundation of respect as clearly as the NBA. Officiating crews respect the star players, who get the calls. Star players respect the teams with other star players, who then join forces. With 10 seconds left and a tie score in the NBA Finals, you know the ball is going through LeBron James or Kevin Durant, so just try and stop it. Respect.
Russell Westbrook doesn’t respect the Nuggets. He owns them — from Jokic, the prodigal, 22-year-old center, all the way down to Rocky, the mascot. The timing, target and ferocity of his body blow on Jokic says this was no chance encounter.
"That was sending a message," Malone said.
Look for Jokic in the All-Star Game this season. He has the desire and ability to be the best Nugget there's ever been, not to mention an endearing personality that's quick to lighten the mood, no matter the circumstance.
"I flopped," Jokic said of the Westbrook tackle.
What happened in the final preseason game could be the best thing that happened to these Nuggets. Perhaps they learned you must protect what matters most. Or it could be a precursor to a failed postseason run. Instead of Malone earning a "T" or a burly teammate returning the favor on Westbrook, the Nuggets stood there and let the bully take their basketball and kick it over the fence.