On Saturday, April 27, the Denver Nuggets held off the crafty San Antonio Spurs 90-86 to win their first-round NBA playoffs match-up by a 4-3 margin. At 8:30 p.m. tonight in the Pepsi Center, the Nugs will take on their next opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers, to kick-start the Western Conference semifinals — and it's the perfect opportunity for Denver residents who aren't already thrilled by this development to jump on the bandwagon.
We know plenty of you haven't been paying attention, and it makes sense. The Nuggets last made the playoffs in the 2012-2013 season, when they were clubbed by the Golden State Warriors just as the latter outfit was becoming the Golden State Warriors, and hadn't actually won a series since 2008-2009, during the period that Carmelo Anthony was the squad's star. And there were a lot of other entertainment options this past weekend.
Would you like us to spoil Avengers: Endgame and the latest Game of Thrones episode for you? Okay, fine, but let us know if you change your mind.
At any rate, there's a damn good chance that those of you who haven't felt the buzz around the new-model Nuggets building since last fall will now have to engage in a conversation about the team, which has become one of the most exciting (and occasionally exasperating) in the entire league. And we're here to help.
Here are six key things to know in order to make yourself seem like an early adapter instead of a johnny-come-lately.
1. Nikola Jokic is a budding superstar...
It was hardly preordained that Jokic would take the NBA by storm. The seven-foot center from Serbia nicknamed The Joker did well in European leagues but wasn't such an astounding prospect that he had American scouts salivating. During the June 2014 draft, Jokic was chosen by the Nuggets with the 41st overall pick in the second round. Had he turned out to be a serviceable bench player, the Denver braintrust would have considered the pick a success.
Instead, Jokic has become much, much more. Although he averaged only 8 points and 6.2 rebounds during the 2014 preseason summer league, he had a breakout performance against (guess who) the Spurs on November 18, notching 23 points and twelve boards — and on April 8, he set a career high with fifteen rebounds in a win over San Antonio. He eventually finished third in voting for the NBA Rookie of the Year and made the All-Rookie first team.
The next two seasons were even better, prompting the Nuggets to offer Jokic a five-year, $148 million contract last July — and after inking it, he continued his evolution into a triple-double machine. His ability as a facilitator has already put him in the conversation about the best passing centers in NBA history, and while this designation seems premature, such chatter indicates that the basketball intelligentsia has taken note of his skills and sees him as one of the big men to beat in the years to come.
2. ...but he sure doesn't look like one.
Most great b-ballers are incredible physical specimens whose musculature inspires awe. But Jokic looks, well, doughy, and he lacks many of the characteristics we associate with the sport. Like, for instance, the ability to jump. Yes, he can get off the ground, but his vertical would be impressive only if it were measured in centimeters rather than inches.
Imposing, he's not — and while his footwork is impeccable, he hardly seems nimble around the basket even when he's causing defenders to look silly. He makes up in smarts and instincts what he lacks in obvious physical gifts, and as a result, he's extremely relatable. What he's doing doesn't look that difficult, even though it most certainly is.
3. Jamal Murray can be one of the greatest Nuggets ever, depending on the night
Unlike Jokic, Jamal Murray was highly touted. The Blue Arrow — after making a particularly difficult shot, he often mimes firing a crossbow — was drafted in the seventh position circa 2016 after playing a single season for the University of Kentucky, a college famous for churning out one-and-dones. And when he's on, he's a fearsome offensive machine adept at getting under the skin of opponents. He put up 48 points against the Boston Celtics in November and took a last-second, garbage-time three-pointer in an attempt to surpass the half-century mark, prompting the C's Kyrie Irving to hurl the ball into the stands in anger. Hilarious.
The problem is, Murray runs so hot-and-cold that the Nuggets can't depend on him. He seems to understand this weakness and frequently talks about becoming more consistent. But his cohorts still don't know what to expect from one night to the next, and that's a problem in the playoffs. The four games during which he played the best against the Spurs were all wins — and in the key second game, his monster fourth quarter not only cemented a victory, but likely saved the entire season. But in the three losses, he underperformed in ways that can't happen if the Nugs want to advance against Portland, whose Damian Lillard is playing at the highest level of his stellar career.
4. The unsung heroes should be sung
Former Nugget Earl Boykins, whose Mile High Hoops podcast with 104.3 The Fan's Zach Bye is one of the sharpest listens you'll find online, calls Denver the best team in the league four-through-nine, and that's an extremely insightful observation. Plenty of units have two or three good members, backed up by a lot of marginal talents who exist primarily to take up space or let the starters take a breather. But the Nuggets are stocked with a slew of players who are always solid and fully capable of picking up the slack on those nights when Murray's jumpers are clanging.
Start the praise with Torrey Craig, who wasn't even playing in this hemisphere a few short years ago; prior to 2017, when the Nuggets picked him up for practically nothing, he was running the hardwood for leagues in Australia and New Zealand. Craig's insertion into the starting lineup during the San Antonio series was absolutely vital to the Nuggets' success, thanks to his defensive skills and knack for hitting key threes at the perfect time. But don't sleep on Malik Beasley, a Florida State product who brings energy and impactful scoring off the bench, plus Monte Morris, a former Iowa Stater who shares many of the best qualities of starting point guard Gary Harris; ex-Dukie Mason Plumlee, who's turned into a better pro than anyone other than Coach K probably expected; live wire Will Barton, and more.
Simply put, the Nuggets are deep — and at this time of year, that's extremely important.
5. Michael Malone won't be named Coach of the Year, but he should be
When Malone was hired by the Nuggets after an unfair bouncing by the Sacramento Kings, the enthusiasm level in these parts was subterranean. A lot of observers saw him as a place-holding journeyman, not a man capable of turning the ship in the right direction.
Surprise, surprise: Thanks in part to Malone's firm-but-optimistic leadership style, the Nuggets have improved each year since he walked into the locker room: 33 wins in 2015-2016, forty in 2016-2017, 46 in 2017-2018, and 54 this season. Furthermore, he's managed to foster an environment in which the kind of sniping and bitterness common in the NBA has been supplanted by humor and camaraderie. Even his benching of high-profile acquisition Isaiah Thomas when it became clear the experiment failed hasn't killed the good times. And while the Spurs' Gregg Popovich out-coached him early in the just-completed series, his aforementioned move with Craig showed that he has what it takes to help the team make even more noise in the playoffs.
6. The pros and cons of youth
The Nuggets have the youngest team in the playoffs, with ballers 24-and-under accounting for the lion's share of minutes this season. But that's not always a good thing. Of the starters, only forward Paul Milsap had sniffed the post-season before, and in the close-out game against the Spurs, it definitely showed. The Nugs were up by seventeen in the third quarter, but instead of keeping the pedal mashed to the floorboards, they eased up on the gas and let San Antonio back into the game. Popovich's crew cut the lead to two before a Murray mid-ranger doubled the margin — after which Spurs center LaMarcus Aldridge inexplicably let the clock expire rather than fouling to stop it.
Supposedly, Aldridge couldn't hear Popovich's instructions over the Pepsi Center crowd, but a simple brain fart is a more likely explanation.
With luck, this close call and plenty of others will pay dividends for the Nuggets against the Trail Blazers, whom they beat three out of four times this season — and once again, Denver has home-court advantage. Another series triumph is hardly a lock, but the Nuggets have a legitimate chance to reach the Western Conference finals, as last happened during the Carmelo-led 2008-2009 campaign.
And if they do, you'll be ready.