DENVER • The Nuggets season of a lifetime ended at 4:08 p.m. Sunday with all the mercy of a stubbed toe. Hurt like hell, and wait till the Western Conference finals start without them.
It’ll hurt more.
“Sad, disappointed,” franchise player Nikola Jokic said after Game 7 on Sunday.
But the season of a lifetime always felt blessed, like it came with three wishes. The Joker is so big and so good he counts for two, which, after a 100-96 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, left only one more.
So here’s my wish for Jokic and the baby Nuggets who grew up fast in their first venture into the big-boy playoffs: Don’t change. Get better from a bad loss to an inferior team in a conference semifinal. Practice your freakin’ free throws, for crying out loud, as a sold-out Pepsi Center did often on Sunday.
“Right now I hate Mother’s Day,” Michael Malone said.
But please, don’t change, because what made this Nuggets season memorable was its innocence. The NBA has a habit of turning likable personalities into Russell Westbrook and Gregg Popovich, and no thanks. I’ll take the goofball who wages war with a microphone stand, and the one who chomps a kid’s pretzel as he plows into the courtside seats during the fourth quarter. Knowing Jokic is 24 and Murray is 22 made each playoff win feel like gravy.
At the end, Jokic’s response after Game 7 showed why these Nuggets someday will be the first to host an NBA parade in Colorado: “I feel responsible,” he said.
The best player must shoulder the losses as well as the wins. Over 14 spectacular games in his first postseason, Joker’s shoulders proved as broad as the Rocky Mountains. That the star center had no issue taking blame — despite being the one who shouldn’t after a gross Game 7 — says as much about the team’s future as his five triple-doubles, the most in team playoffs history. Preserve the humility, raise the shooting percentages, and they will go far.
“I love where we’re at. More importantly, I love where we’re going and who we’re going there with,” Malone said during the most optimistic press conference you’ll ever hear after a defeat.
“Mr. K (Kroenke) said it: We won 61 games this year. It’s been 10 years since we’ve won that many games,” Malone added.
There have been better Nuggets teams, of course. Carmelo’s 2008-09 band of rag-tags (plus Chauncey) was for long stretches the best team in the NBA. Alex English carried two into the conference finals. Mutombo’s bunch in 1993-1994 sure was fun.
But never in my lifetime, at least, have the Nuggets married this much young talent with the humility that’s bound to be necessary. Nothing’s felled gifted teams more than money and ego.
Jokic, the franchise player, got paid last summer — even if he’s worn the same three T-shirts since then, so I’m not sure anyone’s told him yet.
And his ego could fit on one of his pinkies.
“The way we wanted everybody to win” veteran forward Paul Millsap said he’d remember from this season. “That’s what makes an amazing locker room, when guys are wanting other guys to... succeed. A lot of selfless guys in this locker room. That’s how you build teams. These are guys who want to win championships.”
Portland advanced to face Golden State, because the NBA doesn’t allow for skipped steps and somebody has to lose to the Warriors. Oh, and CJ McCollum. While Damian Lillard’s inefficient series had me thinking “Mini Melo,” McCollum made like the second coming of Kobe.
“Before the game my brother texted me and told me not to settle,” McCollum said after ripping out Denver’s heart with 37 points.
What tickled most was how the Nuggets got the yips under the pressure of a Game 7. They tightened up. They missed 11 free throws and all of the 13 3-pointers that Jokic didn’t shoot.
“It’s frustrating,” said Murray, who missed 14 of 18 shots and exited the arena in a hurry.
When they changed, the Nuggets lost. They changed the gameplan, in their heads if not on Malone’s whiteboard: See that Serbian genie over there? Play how he plays — selfless.
Instead, the Nuggets got full of themselves and turned to one-on-one ball. Outside Jokic, this roster’s not good enough yet to win with hero ball. Check back when Michael Porter Jr. comes into his own, but not now, this deep into May.
“This is our first time we’ve been here. Probably next year we’re going to be better,” said Jokic, who had 29 points and 13 rebounds.
Hurts like a stubbed toe now, but their history suggests Game 7 was the best thing to happen to the Nuggets.
No, really. The Nuggets were here, in an unlikely position, ahead of schedule, because of losses, not wins. The one that jumps out is Game 82 last year to the Timberwolves, “a rallying cry,” as Malone said.
“That was a motivating loss,” he added.
Now there’s another one.
“I’m not going to allow this Game 7 to take away from this magical season,” Malone said.
This was the season of a lifetime for what it could become, not what it was. Keep splashing Malone with water bottles after clinching a playoff spot. Keep waging wars with mic stands. Don’t lose that stuff, and the Nuggets will go far.