The Denver Nuggets home closer ended yesterday afternoon the same way the season started.
On October 29, the Nuggets held a comforting 104-95 lead over Portland with less than two minutes to go in front of a frenzied crowd and on a night they honored the legendary Dikembe Mutombo. Instead of closing out the game and starting off the season with a solid home victory, Denver collapsed and Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers stunned the Nuggets with a 115-113 overtime win.
Yesterday, in a crucial win-or-go-home game against Oklahoma City, Denver held a 103-95 lead with 1:56 left, and with just 47 seconds remaining still held a 105-98 advantage. Instead of closing this game and keeping their slim playoff chances alive, the Nuggets allowed Russell Westbrook to walk all over them, on his way to 13 consecutive points and an incredible game winning three to cap his historic day and to put the Nuggets out of their misery .
Of course, unlike the home opener, this loss was marred by questionable officiating. In particular, one play sticks out: with just under two minutes remaining, Nikola Jokic fouled Russell Westbrook on a layup attempt, which was reviewed and unbelievably determined to be a flagrant one. Later, Nikola Jokic would receive a technical foul after inquiring with referee Kenny Mauer about the call.
The result was three points for the Thunder without taking any time off of the clock, and a subsequent 8-2 run by Westbrook to seal the deal.
Denver was up 103-95 with 1:56 left when THIS was called a flagrant by Kenny Mauer. Denver lost by 1 and is officially out of the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/6nLb6zSDb4— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) April 9, 2017
The flagrant one call on Jokic was abhorrent, as clearly there was no excessive contact other than to just commit a common foul and stop Westbrook from scoring. Simply put, the call should have remained a common foul and Jokic should not have had to argue over a flagrant foul to begin with.
Make no mistake, though, the refs did not lose this game for the Nuggets.
As a whole, the Nuggets scored just six points in the final six minutes of the game. For a team with such a high powered offense, this is unacceptable. In particular, the last 1:56 following the foul is telling of how poor of a job the Nuggets did in the home stretch. Here’s a look at Denver’s offensive possessions and Oklahoma City’s scoring possessions within the final two minutes:
1:56 - Russell Westbrook makes both free throws and technical free throw (103-98)
1:45 - Nikola Jokic draws foul (Steven Adams), makes both free throws (105-98)
1:29 - Nikola Jokic loose ball turnover (Steven Adams steal)
0:54 - Nikola Jokic misses 26-foot three-point jumper
0:47 - Russell Westbrook draws three-point foul, makes all three attempts (105-101)
0:29 - Wilson Chandler offensive charge
0:27 - Russell Westbrook makes driving layup (105-103)
0:02 - Nikola Jokic misses running jumper
0:00 - Russell Westbrook makes 36 ft. three-point jumper (106-105)
Say as much as you want about the officiating, but the Nuggets lost this game and lost their only sliver of hope for the postseason all by themselves. They still had a five point lead following the free throws, and instead of putting it away they missed their shots and turned the ball over multiple times. On the other end of the floor, they would have had enough stops to win had they kept scoring, especially since no human was going to get in the way of Westbrook.
For Nuggets fans this season, though, the shoddy refereeing isn’t anything new. On November 8 in a one point loss to the Grizzlies, the NBA’s last two minute report admitted that the Nuggets should have retained possession on the last play of the game, which would have guaranteed a victory. Instead, Memphis won the game on a buzzer beater.
Another example occurred on December 23 against Atlanta, when Nikola Jokic was called for a questionable loose ball foul with 42 seconds remaining. After the call, Coach Malone got T’d up for arguing. The league’s L2M report admitted that the foul was incorrect, but Malone’s tech ended up being the difference maker in the 109-108 loss.
But what has quickly been forgotten is that Denver completely botched the inbounds play in Memphis, and Denver gave up a 9-0 Hawks run in the final 1:43 of that game as well. In the home opener against Portland, Wilson Chandler missed a pair of free throws in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter that would have sealed the win. More recently, the Nuggets allowed James Harden to drive the entire length of the court for a game winning layup in what would have been a pivotal win against Houston. And then there was yesterday. The list of botched games goes on and on.
Bad calls are a part of sports, but great teams don’t let these calls dictate the outcome of a game or the course of an entire season. Great teams look past the officials and find a way to execute when it matters most. For all intents and purposes, the Nuggets are not yet a great team.
Now, their season will end early for the fourth year in a row, and admittedly, it sucks. But missing the postseason might also be the best thing to happen to the Nuggets, who will need to look deep in the mirror to fix the very evident issues that have cost them a playoff berth to begin with. Aside from defense, late game execution has to be the second highest priority. These blown games are inexcusable.