DENVER — At the free throws end of practice Friday, one day before a long-awaited return to the NBA playoffs, these baby Nuggets confirmed they have no clue what’s at stake against the Spurs.
Ignorance is bliss, all that.
Once 22-year-old Jamal Murray wrapped up another intense conversation with Michael Malone, the usual with those two, he embraced the moment of his first best-of-seven series: "Excited. Anxious." Paul Millsap, the 34-year-old swami out of necessity, dropped some Yoda on his younger teammates: “Don’t overthink it.”
Forgive them for they are young. The youth and faraway origins of the Nuggets have misled them into believing the first postseason here in six years is about them, or the quest to advance in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. No offense, guys, but this is much bigger than that.
This series against the Spurs, which begins with Games 1 and 2 at Pepsi Center, is about the Nuggets overcoming fears — not theirs but Colorado's, the fear that it's not possible here. It's about turning a corner. It's about becoming one of the haves, and doing so against the one franchise that's been everything the Nuggets for so long have only dreamt about — coaching stability, draft luck, playoff success, on and on.
Say what you will about Kobe Bryant’s Lakers or John Stockton’s Jazz, high on the leader board for Most Wanted at McNichols Arena and Pepsi Center. But death by 1,000 bank shots is far more humbling, and it's Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs who stood for years and years as the basketball aphrodisiac here: Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach with no desire to go anywhere else. Oh, yeah. And five championship parades. Stupid Spurs.
Around these hills, that level of good fortune might as well be the other side of the Wall in “Game of Thrones.” So what do you guys think is on the other side? Can't say. Never been.
“That’s a Mike Tyson knockout if you’re comparing Gregg Popovich and Michael Malone,” Malone said with a laugh on Friday. “The guy is arguably the best NBA coach in history.”
It’s not so much the Spurs have stood in the way of the Nuggets. More like the other way around, with the Nuggets as a speed bump for the Spurs. Denver's won exactly one season series against the Spurs in the past 30 years. (One. Not a typo. One.) The Nuggets have won one playoff series against the Spurs, a five-gamer that went the distance at McNichols in '85. It was so long ago God was still just toying with the idea of a Nikola Jokic. Good idea, God.
The Nuggets have been to a conference finals three times in their history. The Spurs went four times in the past seven years. That San Antonio’s otherworldly success came in a comparably sized market, at least in NBA metrics, has generated one helluva inferiority complex among the real ones in Nuggets land.
These Nuggets don’t know about all that. They are so young that Murray didn’t know Chauncey Billups played for the 2008-09 Nuggets who reached the conference finals. “Really?” he said.
Kids these days, right?
Maybe young and dumb, as Malone called it, is bliss. Asked if he expects to see playoff nerves, Malone said with a straight face, “Yeah, I expect the Spurs to be nervous. Oh, (you mean) us?”
Considering the Air Force athletics Hall of Fame and his master's from the University of Denver, Popovich should take it easier on Colorado. You’d think so, anyway. Instead, he's 60-27 against the Nuggets, and that’s in the regular season. The 8-2 in the playoffs twists the knife.
“We know he’s going to play mind games,” Millsap confirmed Friday.
“There’s going to be a lot of things thrown at (Jokic),” Millsap added.
Anyone in basketball has a theory or opinion on the Spurs' run and when it turns. So here’s my speculation and I’m sticking to it: Popovich is nearing the end of a 22-year career there, all of which closed in the postseason in some form, and Kansas coach Bill Self will be next in line, perhaps as coach-in-waiting in the meantime.
Wouldn't it be so Spurs to bring in one Hall of Famer just as another is about to call it quits?
Nuggets fans should be emboldened by Pop’s unabashed affinity for Jokic, who is the most Spurs-y player in the series but plays for the Nuggets. Here's a hunch Joker's skills are going to translate spectacularly in the playoffs, whether it's now or later, because pass-dribble-shoot translates at any level. And Pop has said a few times Jokic is his kind of guy.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Popovich said earlier this season. “He’s a tad pudgy, you know? He doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast. But he might be one of the smartest players in the league, he’s got skills, and he knows how to use them. And he enjoys the hell out of himself out there.”
Sounds a lot like Duncan if you ask me, except for the pudgy part, and it was in March when Jokic texted a member of the Nuggets front office to say it would be cool to become the Duncan of Denver. Not saying, just saying.
“You can have a tremendous regular season and you’re going to get credit for that," Malone said. "But until you do it on the national stage, on the big stage, in the playoffs, that’s when you take your game to a different level. That’s when your reputation grows.”
The reputation of both teams precedes them. What's at stake is the Nuggets changing theirs.