DENVER — Let's call it what it is. It’s cocky.
Don’t know about you, but it sure looks like the Nuggets squad that closed the regular season with the swag wagon on cruise control could use a jolt of cocky right about now. Time for the playoffs, baby.
Someone find Jamal Murray and load up his quiver with blue arrows.
As the Nuggets await their opponent and schedule for the Western Conference postseason that begins Saturday, they’re in a fine and dandy spot as the No. 2 or 3 seed. This regular season brought a return of action ball to Pepsi Center, and that was never guaranteed. Just ask the Minnesota Timberwolves, who loafed into the finale Wednesday with a gifted, young roster that couldn't get out of its own way and is stuck at home for the playoffs.
Meantime, the Nuggets entered Wednesday with 53 wins, the promise of a real, live superstar in Nikola Jokic and the first Northwest Division title since 2010, way back in the Carmelo years.
(He was the other No. 15 here, kids, the one before Joker arrived from Serbia. Google him some time.)
“Let’s be honest. How many playoff games do we have collectively as a team?” coach Michael Malone said prior to tipoff on Wednesday.
Not many among the regulars — Paul Millsap (87 playoff games), Mason Plumlee (27) and Will Barton (seven). Until the Nuggets convince the world they are for real by winning in the postseason, few folks outside the Mountain Time Zone are going to believe in them. That's where Murray comes in.
Although he’s a playoff rookie the 22-year-old is on the poster for “take the ‘L’ on the way out.”
“Confidence is more than half the battle,” Murray told me earlier this season.
One of the fun things about having Murray on the roster is how he doesn’t go after the Hawks or Kings or some other also-ran that schedules tee times while the NBA schedules the playoffs. He goes at basketball royalty, rolling a ball at the Lakers bench and ticking off half of Boston while gunning for 50 points against the Celtics.
That attitude — and it’s an attitude, all right — is a significant reason one member of the front office jumped on a chair when Murray fell to the Nuggets in the 2016 draft. It’s a locker room of swell guys that needed a dog to add a cutthroat edge.
It’s why the Nuggets didn’t tell the whippersnapper guard to tone it down when he drew the ire of scorned Lakers fans, or when Celtics guard Kyrie Irving called him out for showboating. The Nuggets want that version of Jamal Murray. Whether it’s the Clippers, Spurs or Thunder waiting in the first round of the playoffs, they’re going to need the version of Murray who believes he’s better than all comers. It’s no coincidence the Nuggets are 10-1 when Murray unloads for at least 25 points.
Malone’s decision to rest his guys with a week to go in the regular season was a smart one. The expectations and grind that come with a playoff push and more meaningful games had worn them down, mentally if not physically. Plus, it should say something about the different expectations that Portland rested its players in order to gain a favorable first-round matchup — while Denver rested its guys to land a better second-round matchup.
That's a vote of confidence. Here's another: if it feels like leather, Murray needs to let it fly.
And what happens when a playoff opponent wises up and goes full “Cowboy” Cerrone on Jokic, beating him into smithereens until big fella loses his temper? When the rest of the court loses its marbles, Murray seems to steady out. There’s a reason Murray was named MVP as a high school kid (Jordan Brand All-Star game) and as a professional (Rising Stars game). He's wired for the playoffs. As his AAU coach told me: “He’s best when the stage is the biggest.”
No doubt about it, this was one of the most entertaining regular seasons in Nuggets history. To write a tad more they must see Jamal Murray retake his front-row seat on the swag wagon.