DENVER — Who are these guys in gold and powder blue?
The Nuggets are buzzing an alarm to wake up a basketball community that’s been in a deep slumber. Why stop now? After another come-from-behind triumph that seemed too far out of reach on too many occasions, don’t you want to see what they can do with a full head of steam in the playoffs?
"I use the word 'belief' because I think that's a huge part of this," Michael Malone said before his Nuggets erased an 11-point deficit to steal an 88-82 win against nemesis No. 1 Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers on Monday.
After 81 games for a team with personalities that vary depending on the night and locale, it all comes down to Wednesday at Minnesota. Winner goes to the Western Conference playoffs. Loser goes fishing.
Does Nikola Jokic look like a guy who can pull off a pair of Simms waders?
Moral victories are for teams that aren’t good enough for the real thing. But this is the only sensible response to how the Nuggets are gutting out the tail end of the season, first in the absence of big-money forward Paul Millsap, then in the absence of leading scorer Gary Harris: well done, fellas. Monday night's stirring comeback ticked off Nurkic to no end and made it six straight wins — each one against a team with a winning record, a first in Nuggets history, according to Altitude TV reporter Katy Winge — and they’ve needed every last one to remain in the hunt. Hey, I seem to remember a baseball team that rode Rocktober into quite a playoff run.
"When we believe in the game and believe in each other, we're a different team," Jamal Murray said.
Now they must keep it going. The wholly invested, booming crowd of 17,467 that packed into Pepsi Center scored a sweet reminder of what playoff basketball looks like. It's a trip. It’s Nurkic puffing out his chest and staring down his old bench, even the seat where he used to pout. It’s Jokic getting bullied all over the block before stuffing the Blazers into a locker in the fourth quarter. When the latest sweaty-palms game was over and Malone could breathe a sigh of relief, Jokic had his 10th triple-double this season.
The Joker has been so good with the season on the line it’s easy to forget he’s only 23 years old. On the same day he was named Western Conference player of the week, Jokic had 15 points, 20(!) rebounds and 11 assists.
Woo, boy. Where's that max contract extension? Let me go find a pen.
“If he’s not All-NBA,” Malone said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Yes, it’s critical to mention the Nuggets put themselves in this spot, needing a road win against Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns in their own barn to keep their season going. It never should have come down to the season finale; careless and avoidable losses to the Mavs (24-57), Kings (25-54), Suns (20-61), Hawks (24-57), Mavs (again) and Grizzlies (who broke a 19-game losing skid) put them in a winner-take-all grudge match.
"We dug ourselves into this hole," veteran guard Devin Harris said. "We've got to dig ourselves out of it."
For the second time in three nights, The Can was cookin' with gas. The Nuggets' is reminiscent of the franchise revival that’s going down in the same building. Can the Nuggets copy the Avs by clinching a playoff spot on the final day?
"The work's not over," Malone said.
“I think we're all ready to go (Wednesday)," Harris said.
Whatever happens, it's clear the Nuggets are taking baby steps into a new era. This isn't a franchise that does this sort of thing. This is a franchise that sees its beloved mascot, Rocky, pass out during a skit. Shoot, it was just Monday night that the arena blimp carrying $10 gift cards crashed into the crowd. No one was hurt, aside from the remote controller’s pride. But this incarnation of the Nuggets? Tough.
You need two hands to count the number of times their season should have been cooked. Down 22 to the Bucks comes to mind. Beating chief nemesis Russell Westbrook on the road is up there. And on Monday the Nuggets were getting treated by Nurkic, who still holds a grudge and is rounding into one excellent villain. The Nuggets trailed by 11, couldn't make an open shot, and it looked like Millsap chose a bad night to have a bad night. The highest-paid athlete in Colorado must be better than six points if the Nuggets are to have a prayer of winning at Minnesota. Time to make those $30 million.
What's the secret to a late-season surge that almost nobody saw coming?
"Sometimes young guys are too dumb to know what's at stake," said Malone, whose well-planned technical foul sparked the squad and led to a 20-8 run.
Don't wise up now. There's one more to go.