At game's end, the mass exodus happened so quickly at Jake's Food & Spirits last night that I could barely shake the hands of the 150-plus Stiffs that had arrived hours before for a thrilling Game 6.
Ninth time in 10 years in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Of the nine first round exits we've witnessed since 2004, this one hurts the most. Not only had our Denver Nuggets won an NBA franchise-best 57 regular season games (including a franchise best 15 straight wins), but this band of Nuggets players captured our hearts as fans unlike any Nuggets team since the 1993-94 squad that also had that incredible sense of "teamness" about it, as head coach George Karl likes to say. This current Nuggets team had virtually no ego, no pretension and no arrogance about it and yet it was able to embrace every challenge thrown in front of them: the brutal early season schedule with an unreasonable number of road games and back-to-backs, injuries to key players including Wilson Chandler, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, fearsome Western Conference opposition (at least five teams in the west won at least 56 games), and so forth.
Moreover, the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets were well positioned for a long playoff run. Not only were the Nuggets seeded third overall against an upstart Golden State Warriors team that won 10 less games than they did, but an aging, potentially vulnerable San Antonio Spurs squad awaited in Round 2 and a Russell Westbrook-less, James-Harden-less Oklahoma City Thunder team - if they survive their own first round series, thanks to Harden wearing the opponent's uniform now - potentially awaited in the conference finals.
But instead, the most inspiring of seasons went up in smoke thanks to an uninspiring playoff performance. Allowing the underdog Warriors to get the best of them early and often in their first round playoff matchup, the Nuggets ceded that valuable home court advantage by dropping Game 2 at Pepsi Center and then compounded the problem by playing poorly in Game 4 at Oakland, turning a blowout victory into a close call in Game 5 back in Denver and showing up for just the early and very late parts of Game 6 last night.
And while there's objectively no question that the referees inexcusably botched two late calls in Game 6, the Nuggets ultimately have only themselves to blame for putting themselves in a position to let a playoff series be determined by a bad call or two. (I'll be eternally befuddled by the out-of-bounds call in particular as it was reviewed on slow motion replay and was still called incorrectly. Making matters worse, in recapping the game NBATV's post-game show made no mention of how close that call was ... meaning the NBA is trying to sweep the issue under the rug.)
Simply put, you can't win a road game (or even a home game) in the NBA playoffs while shooting a season-worst 34.7% from the field, missing 21 three-pointers, missing eight free throws and being out-rebounded by 11. As I said to my colleague Nate Timmons while watching Corey Brewer chuck errant three-pointer after errant three-pointer last night: "Are the refs taking those shots? Are the refs forcing Karl to keep Brewer in the game?"
And yet, somehow the Nuggets put themselves in a position to tie the game late had the referees just done their job right. That doesn't mean the Nuggets would have necessarily won Game 6, of course, but they'd at least have had an overtime opportunity.
But after sleeping on this loss and pouring over the Game 6 statistics one more time, it's clear to me that the Warriors had the Nuggets number. So concerned were the Nuggets about containing point guard Stephen Curry and his guard teammates Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson (who collectively shot 11-37 from the field and turned the ball over 11 times), that they allowed center Andrew Bogut to kill them inside with 14 points (on 7-10 shooting), 21 rebounds and four blocks. Bogut quickly reminded everyone why he's a former number one overall draft pick and why JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos remain works in progress.
The Warriors are now 5-0 in first round series since 1978 when they're the underdog. Like their playoff-upsetting predecessors before them, the Warriors played loose and had their favored opponent on its heels early. And most unfortunately, like their playoff-disappointing predecessors before them, our favored Nuggets couldn't take advantage of controlling home court in the first round ... something they worked so hard to claim in the regular season. The Nuggets are now 2-8 all-time (in the NBA) in Game 6's, 1-2 under Coach Karl (I'm not including the Game 6 loss on Adrian Dantley's watch in 2010 which officially makes Karl's Denver playoff record 1-3 in Game 6's).
In the days and weeks to come, we'll analyze where the Nuggets go from here and continually question what could have been as the Warriors get trounced by the Spurs in Round 2 and Kevin Durant's Thunder get beaten up by a Memphis Grizzlies squad the Nuggets were able to best during the regular season in three out of four games. Our Nuggets should have been a part - a big part - of the NBA's second round playoff dance card in 2013. But alas, they will not. And it's not because of the referees.
It's because the Nuggets picked a bad time to forget how they won 57 games.