DENVER — The national guys won’t get it. They won’t know what this meant for the Nuggets, their millions of thirsty fans, the future of a franchise that’s taken too many kicks to the gut.

They won’t understand why Stan Kroenke and his moustache were buried in a Nikola Jokic bear hug in the tunnel, an embrace worth every penny of $147 million.

The Nuggets beat the Spurs 90-86 in Game 7 Saturday night, and it meant more than advancing to play the Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals. It meant more because the Nuggets, not the other guys, had the best player in the series. It meant more because of how they did it and who they did it against: with a proud defense and against the Spurs, a model NBA franchise that’s tormented the Nuggets.

UPDATE: Denver survives in Game 7, barely

“We have such a young team. To see where we’re at, what we’re doing and what we’re capable of in the years to come, with Nikola (Jokic) as the centerpiece of that, that’s a good feeling as a Nugget fan,” coach Michael Malone said well.

Good, great, terrific. Take your pick. What the 19,725 who packed into Pepsi Center with full vocal chords and left with empty ones were feeling better than good. They were drunk on happy. They witnessed only the second time the Nuggets have advanced in the postseason since Dikembe Mutombo raised the ball above his head in Seattle. They saw the first Game 7 win here in 40 years.

They should be thrilled at the direction of a franchise that blew up George Karl’s winning operation for exactly what transpired in Game 7.

"I loved the grit, the resiliency, the toughness, we played with tonight,” Malone said.

The Nuggets won a playoff series with defense. It’s worth repeating: the Nuggets won a playoff series with defense. It’s something I’ve never written, and something few folks would even consider in the previous half-century. The Nuggets shot like they were blindfolded by Rocky, yet they controlled Game 7, for the most part, against the NBA’s savviest coach, Gregg Popovich.

They can win like this now because Nikola Jokic. Dirk fadeaways. Three-point rainbows. Dipsy-do, up-and-unders. While his massive older brother Strahinja Jokic squeezed into a No. 15 jersey on the way to his seat, the Joker wrapped a historic series with a triple-double of 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.2 assists.

And that’s what he averaged for the series, not from Game 7. Thank you, Serbia.

There’s only one player I’d take ahead of Jokic for the next 10 years, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the NBA MVP. Still, you wondered: how will Joker's unorthodox game translate in the postseason?

“You don’t know what’s going to happen come playoff time. He’s risen to the occasion and beyond,” Popovich said of his favorite non-Spur. “The fact that the stakes went up did not diminish his play a bit.”

So they can poke Colorado for celebrating like this was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but they won’t get it. They didn’t see Brian Shaw’s cardboard box in the locker room ("Put your cell phones here.") They didn’t watch Nate Robinson dancing with Rocky during a 20-point loss.

Didn’t come easy, either, but nobody thought it would. When the Spurs cut a 17-point deficit to two with 52 seconds left, 36,000 palms got sweaty and three decades rolled into one.

You could almost feel it in the building: Not like this. Not like the other times.

This isn’t the other teams.

Jamal Murray splashed a jumper from the left wing, the shot of the series. Jokic grabbed the rebound, and the Nuggets moved on.

“Denver, they did a great job,” Popovich said. “I’m happy for them in a strange way.”

That will take some getting used to, of course, the opposing coach appreciating how the Nuggets play the game. And the youngest roster in the Western Conference bracket must shoot a whole helluva lot better than it has been to outlast Portland in Round 2. Denver went 3-1 against the Blazers, who are scheduled to visit Pepsi Center on Monday for Game 1.

For now, let them celebrate. By them, I mean Nuggets fans.

“That was awesome, huh?” president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said late Saturday.

And it's only getting started.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

Sports columnist

Denver sports columnist for The Gazette

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