DENVER — What happened after Russell Westbrook and the Thunder ripped out the rug from under the Nuggets and stomped all over their playoff hopes?
It was more revealing than the insanity that transpired during the game. And that says something, because the packed house at Pepsi Center won't forget what it saw Sunday.
Seconds after Westbrook, the man who should be MVP, rose up and drained a 36-foot, game-winning Hail Mary at the buzzer, Nikola Jokic's brothers went nuclear on the officiating crew that deserved a game ball from the OKC locker room. The only thing standing between Strahinja Jokic and a truly ugly incident was the poor sap assigned to security at the tunnel that leads to the Nuggets' locker room. The source of their ire presumably was a flagrant foul on Nikola, who definitely fouled Westbrook on a drive, but not in a flagrant manner.
"He (Westbrook) complains to the referees and he gets a flagrant," coach Michael Malone said after the Nuggets lost, 106-105.
Malone's not wrong. It was a comical call, the worst in basketball since the NCAA championship game. But — and Malone acknowledged it several times later — refs are hardly the reason the Nuggets now will go five seasons, at least, between appearances in the postseason.
The Nuggets were eliminated from playoff contention because they refuse to grow up. Their steadfast immaturity ranges from Jokic losing his cool at the worst possible times; to Danilo Gallinari going for 34 points through three quarters, then scoring the same as you and me in the fourth when it mattered most; to bickering over who should be top dog; to their status as the worst defensive team in the NBA. Defense is about accountability. The Nuggets have none. In the fancy-schmancy new locker rooms at Pepsi Center, if you whine loud enough, you get rewarded with a marquee role in Portland. And if you miss the postseason but secure a pingpong ball in the draft lottery, no sweat, go get 'em next year.
So Pepsi Center will be without a playoff team for the third straight year. Prior to the 2014-15 season either the Nuggets or Avs made the playoffs every year since the Avs arrived in 1995.
But hey, beer sales are solid and New Kids on the Block is coming in June.
This seems like a good spot to say it's not the end of their world that the Nuggets missed the playoffs. Maybe this is the year the Nuggets, with a 0.6 percent chance of scoring the No. 1 overall pick, finally hit the jackpot. It's an exceptional draft, the deepest I've seen in 14 years. This season wasn't a bust for the Nuggets, not with the emergence of Jokic as a future superstar. But they went all-in for the playoffs, didn't make it, and that's a big disappointment.
"Our goal was the playoffs and we didn't accomplish it," Jokic said afterward in a locker room that cleared out quicker than the men's room at a chili cook-off.
This game Sunday was so Nuggets it should have worn the skyline jerseys to the arena. The Thunder won because its veteran star, Westbrook, played the fourth quarter like he would only get paid if they won; the Nuggets lost because theirs seem allergic to winning plays.
Westbrook had 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. That's pretty cool, but it's even cooler he stayed in the game with 4:16 left and a 10-point deficit. He could have checked out after breaking Oscar Robertson's record of 41 triple-doubles; Westbrook opted for the Nitro Boost. How over was the game? Broncos defensive backs Bradley Roby and Will Parks got up from their seats and headed toward the exit once history was made and Westbrook had the record.
"We have to add defensive-minded players, in my opinion," Malone said.
Hmmm. Wonder which guys on the Nuggets roster he considers uninterested in defense?
Just a hunch, but it could be the veterans who pouted when George Karl was fired, couldn't get along with Brian Shaw and openly suggested after a recent loss at Portland that Malone had been outcoached. Who's next in the blame game? Rocky the SuperMascot?
When Westbrook lost Kevin Durant, he got stronger. When the Nuggets lost a lead to Westbrook and the Thunder, the players and select family members got a new blame game.
Maybe it's not the refs who bumped the Nuggets from the playoff hunt. Maybe it's not the coach. Maybe it's trading Jusuf Nurkic to a division rival or losing at home to the Sixers, Pistons and Kings. Maybe it's just the Nuggets who whiffed on a great playoff opportunity. You think?