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Paul Klee: Now or never for Denver Nuggets in playoff hunt

By: Paul Klee
March 27, 2017 Updated: March 28, 2017 at 7:59 am
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Minnesota Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins, right, eyes the basket as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic of Serbia defends in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

DENVER - The Nuggets have a big one on Tuesday.

Just in case this big one, at Portland, needed some more juice, some more drama, here's a little something-something for the residents of Nuggets Nation and Rip City to chew on.

During a home game earlier this season, when Jusuf Nurkic was still here, Nurkic left the Nuggets bench, got in his car and drove away from Pepsi Center. Just so we're clear: The game was still going on when Nurkic left, and, yes, he returned to The Can before it ended.

Days later, when it was clear the Nurkic-Nuggets marriage faced irreconcilable differences (see: Nurkic sought a starting spot and rising star Nikola Jokic stood in the way), the Nuggets filed for a divorce and Nurkic was traded to Portland in exchange for center Mason Plumlee.

So far it looks like a win-win for Nurkic, a gifted 22-year-old with a bright future, and both franchises. But the jury's still out: Nurkic hasn't faced adversity in Portland yet, Plumlee hasn't re-signed in Denver yet, and both scenarios surely will be factors in the final appraisal.

Now all that stands in the way of the Nuggets and a playoff berth is Nurkic and the Blazers.

That, and the Nuggets themselves.

They do this, don't they? The Nuggets make it tough on themselves. It has been that way for decades, from the wildly entertaining yet melodramatic Melo era to the guffaw-inspiring drafts of the 1990s. This is just how it is. Accepting the inevitable is the first of many steps.

With nine games left in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Denver (35-38) and Portland (35-38) are tighter than a fake-friendly handshake. The Blazers hold the immediate tiebreakers, so this one's slightly more important for the Nuggets.

Tuesday isn't do-or-die - we're talking about a basketball game here - but it's as close to a must-win as the Nuggets have faced since a playoff series against the Golden State Warriors in April 2013. Like we were saying, a big one.

"It's going to be a tough game," veteran forward Darrell Arthur said.

Sunday night at Pepsi Center, fans were given Thundersticks, those inflatable noisemakers loved by kids and loathed by parents. Then the Nuggets lost by 25 points to the Pelicans and coach Michael Malone sounded as if he wanted a Thunderstick to bang against his own head.

"Embarrassing," Malone said. "That was an embarrassing loss."

"Tonight was an example of, 'You can't just show up. You can't just show up and expect you're going to get a win tonight. It's going to be easy,'" he added. "It's never easy in the NBA. Do you know how hard it is to win in the NBA? That's the most disappointing thing. With 10 games to go, in a playoff race, and we showed up like the game didn't matter.

"That can't happen. That can't be us."

I don't think that was the Nuggets. Not the new Nuggets. They had been playing some action ball in winning six of eight to build that lead over Portland. Sometimes losses just happen.

If the Nuggets blow this postseason opportunity they have themselves to blame for reasons other than the collapse against the Pelicans, including earlier meltdowns against the Blazers, Sixers and Nets; the belated entry of Jokic into the starting lineup; or the decision to keep Danilo Gallinari past the trade deadline. Gallo has been a productive player and outstanding community representative for the Nuggets. But he should have been dealt when it became crystal clear the Nuggets' future is destined to revolve around Jokic, not Gallinari.

Nobody's perfect, and the Nuggets' personnel moves over the past 2-3 years are those of a franchise with a plan. Pilfering Will Barton from the Blazers, developing Gary Harris into a solid player and, above all, drafting Jokic in the second round were sharp, promising moves.

There's no but. The Nuggets earned their spot in a playoff chase. Now they must overcome an old friend to stay there. Won't be easy, but with the Nuggets, it never has been.

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Twitter: @bypaulklee

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