DENVER – This is going to sound premature, like hysterical media treating 2 inches of snow like the end of humankind as we know it. I get that. It’s only January, and the NBA season rolls all the way into April.
So the point I’m about to make — that the Nuggets are in danger of missing the playoffs, if somebody doesn’t give them a swift kick to the backside — comes with a self-aware disclaimer: we’re just over halfway through the season, with 38 games left to be played. That's a lot of ball still on the calendar.
But there’s no way anyone aside from SuperMascot Rocky could stroll outside Pepsi Center and into the cold and have warm and fuzzy feelings about the way the Nuggets beat the Dallas Mavericks, 105-102. They saw a 23-point lead whittled to one — and that was after the 15-30 Mavericks cleared the bench and appeared to throw in the towel to salvage their energies for another night.
“We held on for dear life,” coach Michael Malone said afterward.
"If that game is 10 seconds longer," he added, "we probably lose."
Again, it’s January. This isn’t the Broncos, where folks are allowed to freak out if the starting quarterback suffers a bloody hangnail before the season even starts. Freaking out on the Nuggets isn’t allowed until February, at the soonest. Pitchers and catchers haven’t even reported to spring training yet, even if Rockies studs Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman and Jon Gray scored the Von Miller treatment with courtside seats on Tuesday.
But I’m telling you — and from listening to Malone’s sharp words of warning for the past two weeks, he’s telling the players — the Nuggets don’t realize how difficult it will be to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.
They’re about to find out. This is going to be a grind. That object in the rear-view mirror is suddenly closer than it appeared. There are eight playoff spots in the West, last I checked, and there are nine teams with a legitimate shot at grabbing one. It's high-stakes musical chairs. One team’s staying home, and, with their shaky nerves in full view of 14,097 fans, the Nuggets know it. So does the coach.
“I thought we were a poorly coached team in the fourth quarter,” Malone said, referring to a messy period in which the Mavs outscored the Nuggets, 33-19. “I take that very personally.”
Truth is, I had an entirely different column fired up prior to the fourth quarter. What the Nuggets needed to see was the kind of game they unfurled for the previous three quarters. They needed to show themselves — not to mention these lottery-bound teams content to turn these games into sloggy wrestling matches — they can win with dirty work, not pretty work.
This won’t be a pretty run toward the postseason. It must be a gritty one. The Nuggets are operating on thin ice, as if their confidence has vanished into Pepsi Center’s thin air. Sometimes the best antidote for forsaken jumpshots is a proper mix of floorburns, burly screens and the kind of cheesy stuff your JV basketball coach told you wins games. More often than not, he was right.
They needed to see the stoic small forward, Wilson Chandler, skidding across the court for a loose ball. That sequence was as beautiful as any behind-the-back pass that Jokic has magically whistled around a defender. They needed to win a game when Jamal Murray’s first shot is an airball and the streaky 20-year-old shooting star doesn’t score a field goal until the second half.
Hey, we know the Nuggets can win pretty. Remove the Golden State Warriors — they’re not fair, anyway — and there wasn’t a prettier offense in basketball through long stretches of last season. Oh, Jokic did Jokic things. He sprinkled some sugar on Tuesday’s boiled-chicken breast of a game when he zipped an assist behind his back to Chandler for a layup.
“He had a fantastic game,” Malone said of Jokic, whose 29 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists offered some well-timed hope the young Serbian can carry the load when they need it.
But let’s be honest: do we really see playoff teams whipping assists behind their back all that often? Playoff teams win by wearing you down. This hopeful playoff team looks worn down. It’s a good rule of thumb you should never feel sorry for professional athletes. The Nuggets were booked to stay at the $548-night Ritz Carlton in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, for crying out loud, before playing the Clippers in a suddenly important game on Wednesday. But in this case, Malone is justified in saying the Nuggets are just flat-out tired.
“Mentally fatigued,” as Malone put it. At this time last season, the Nuggets had played four fewer games with the All-Star break coming soon. Plus — and this is the biggie, right here — there were no playoff expectations last season.
The Nuggets are feeling the pressure of expectations, a heavy weight they haven't needed to carry until this season. They look it. Their offense isn’t popping, the passes aren't singing, the jumpers aren’t swishing through. Whether they are tough enough to survive — "A good way to put it, survive," Malone said — will determine if they still have a seat when the music stops.