SAN ANTONIO — Let's make it official, this time for real: Welcome back to the NBA playoffs, Nuggets.
Stick around for a while?
When the Nuggets decide they’re not too cool for school, this happens: Nuggets 117, Spurs 103.
The long south Texas drought is over. All it took was 2,603 days and the Nuggets dropping the gloves. Game 4 is how this series should’ve gone from the jump. Unless the Spurs desire to see what Colorado green chile tastes like, there’s no reason for them to travel all the way to Denver for Game 5 on Tuesday.
If the Nuggets play as hard as they did Saturday at the AT&T Center, the Spurs can’t hang.
After the Nuggets finally took on the NYC attitude of their coach, Michael Malone invoked the immortal words of Avalanche tough guy Patrick Roy: “I saw a lot of balls on the table.”
Just like Roy went after Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon, Malone went after his own team — with less hockey hair flopping around, of course.
"What excites me is seeing these guys step up in big moments," Malone said.
Remember all those things your JV coach used to ramble on about? Stuff about hustle and defense? The Nuggets finally combined their 2 seed talent with the blue-collar effort of an underdog. When All-Star center Nikola Jokic has 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, and Torrey Craig!, whose game deserves an exclamation point, dives across the court for a loose ball, the Nuggets are a load to handle. Basketball analytics hated this game.
You can’t quantify the value of a floor burn.
"Denver played harder and smarter than we did," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
See, Pop did the same thing that Malone did after the Nuggets stunk up the gym in Game 3. (Quite a compliment for “Mo.”) The NBA’s greatest coach challenged his team’s manhood.
“It’s the playoffs,” Popovich went on. "To have a performance like that is very disappointing."
The last time Denver won here was March 4, 2012. Goodness gracious that’s a long time — 14 straight losses, a streak that began when Jamal Murray was a high school freshman, George Karl the coach, Torrey Craig! a low-major college star in the Big South Conference.
“I was studying (back then). Writing papers. Being studious,” Craig said with a smile.
“I don’t even know what day it is today,” Murray countered.
The series reversed course in the third quarter and took a turn toward the Front Range when Murray smashed a dunk and mean-mugged the Spurs bench.
“I was here tonight,” Murray reminded.
Hey, mark down another assist for Derrick White. Just when you thought there was nothing more he could, White lit a fire under the Nuggets with 36 points in Game 3. He took his hometown team to school. Embarrassed them.
“We all know what Derrick White did last game,” Malone said after Denver tied the series at two wins apiece and reclaimed home-court advantage. “I think we all took it personally.”
OK, so we knew Jokic was pretty good. We knew Murray’s jump shot can burn with the heat of 1,000 Texas suns. We knew Gary Harris was a prep football star who doesn't mind a little contact.
But nobody knew how the NBA’s third-youngest team would respond when backed into a corner.
They threw haymakers.
There was Paul Millsap, sending Spurs across the court with hard screens. There was Torrey Craig!, spiking a Bryn Forbes shot into the floor. There was Malone, so mad at the officiating crew he might be texting them angry-face emojis as you read this. His voice was almost gone as he walked like he had a plane to catch on his way to a press conference.
“Shouldn’t you be fishing somewhere?” Malone asked.
Soon, Coach. And if the Nuggets had lost this one, they could’ve joined in a pair of waders.
But there was one simple fact lost during the course of Games 1-3: the Nuggets were the 2 seed for a reason, just as the Spurs were the 7 seed for a reason. When the Nuggets realized how hard you must play to beat a proud team like the Spurs, the new hierarchy fell in order.
“I think they were just the hungrier team,” said White, who had a series-low eight points thanks largely to the defense of Harris.
There’s nothing fluky about the way White has torched the Nuggets. In series wins, the Spurs are a plus-32 with White on the court — and a minus-28 in defeats. He’s that important to the Spurs and only getting better. But the same is true of the Nuggets, who wore stilettos to a postseason that demands steel-toed boots. Malone gave the kick in the pants they needed.
Malone’s message in the locker room: “How much more do we need to talk about? Go out there and do your job and leave it on the floor.”
“I feel like as the season goes on, as the series goes on, we’re learning,” Craig said.
Everyone learned something about the Nuggets in Game 4 — the basketball world, the Spurs, even the Nuggets themselves. The postseason is no place for kissing the ring. Bring brass knuckles, instead, and this series will be over.