“It feels like the NBA.” Will Barton had a succinct answer when it came to the question of how he was feeling after playing 6 games in 9 nights. It was an answer that was echoed by many in the locker room (at least those who were willing to talk) after the Denver Nuggets took an embarrassing loss to the Golden State Warriors. Barton echoed the sentiments of many when he said “It’s the NBA, you can’t make those type of excuses, everyone plays the same amount of games, sometimes they’re a back to back and a lot of games in a lot of nights. So, you just got to bring the effort. You got the world champs in here so that can’t be an excuse.”
Across the locker room, Nikola Jokic had already headed to the exit. Nikola was visibly frustrated with the game, to the point that at first when he was asked to speak to the media his response was “not tonight guys.” Nikola being the good guy that he is eventually relented, though his answers were of the one sentence variety. It’s not that he was angry at the media or even that he was bothered by them, just the night before after a win against the Miami Heat Jokic was all smiles, opening his newest copy of Call of Duty and patting reporters on the back as he left. Saturday’s sour presser was for one simple fact: Nikola HATES losing. When the team takes a beating like they did Saturday, he simply can’t hide his anger. When asked why the Nuggets hadn’t been able to compete with Golden State like they had in games past, Nikola too wouldn’t use fatigue as an excuse “We didn’t play good against them, and Golden State is really good.”
The message of course comes down from the coach. Michael Malone is the last person who is going to blame fatigue, and while he acknowledged the reality of it on Saturday, he too wouldn’t let it be an excuse. When his starters came out flat in the third quarter, something that has been anything but the norm this season, he was quick to bring the hook, doing a rare full lineup substitution with over eight minutes still to go in the third quarter. The starters wouldn’t get up off the bench again. Afterwards coach would say “Obviously this was our 6th game in 9 nights, but this is the NBA and we can’t use that excuse...I have a hard time flushing it and just keep on trucking, because I just didn’t like our demeanor in that quarter...when teams go on runs, we can’t just roll over.” Coach speak for sure, but it also is some insight into how the team is trying to approach hardship and trying to change their mentality to one that is befitting of a playoff contender.
Neither the coach nor the players were going to brush off the game as a schedule loss. No one was in the locker room with a light heart or a jovial mood. It was clear they all had a bad taste in their mouth from the loss. There’s only one way to get that taste out of their mouth: winning, and early in the year they shown its more than just talk when times get tough. Just a little over a week ago the Nuggets were reeling, they were 1-3 and had just been thoroughly man handled by the Charlotte Hornets. Denver responded by beating the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets before dropping the last game of their road trip to the New York Knicks. They backed up the 2-2 road swing with two straight wins at home against the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat to get them back up above .500.
Now, after another shellacking, how the Nuggets respond will be a sign of how much they continue to grow on the mental side. There’s still three games left on this homestand, all of them winnable, and a 5-1 record (or even 4-2) over these six games at The Can is something no one can complain about. It starts tonight with the Brooklyn Nets and finishes with matchups against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Orlando Magic. Against Orlando and Brooklyn Denver merely needs to take care of business. Both of those teams are improved this year and Orlando has looked particularly strong (though back to back blowout losses have cooled them as of late) but fringe playoff teams from the Eastern Conference are games the Nuggets should win in Denver.
The true test comes Thursday against the Thunder. Last time these two teams met, in the preseason, there was a clear attempt to break Denver mentally. Russell Westbrook started off the night with a flagrant foul on Jokic that was a definite message being sent. He then proceeded to go at Jamal Murray relentlessly throughout the night. The Thunder bring a physical presence and an attitude that the Nuggets will have to match, both on Thursday night and throughout the season. Winning against them would be a sign of the mental toughness this team is trying to, and needs to, foster. It’s easy to say that fatigue wasn’t the reason they lost on Saturday and its easy to say they have to be better. Actually doing it is another thing though, look for Denver to try to make that point this week.