The first quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks felt like a funeral. The Bucks raced out to a 27-14 lead as Denver looked too tired and too shorthanded to pull off a win. With their season on the line, the Nuggets opened their first game back at Pepsi Center in two weeks by taking punch after punch from Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The second quarter was a completely different story. Trey Lyles got the nod over Mason Plumlee with the second unit and led a furious comeback behind a bevy of second chance points and hard-nosed attacks at the basket. The Nuggets scored 41 points in the quarter and raced into halftime with a 63-54 lead.
As if one surprise plot twist wasn’t enough, the third quarter offered another role reversal. Jamal Murray picked up two quick fouls that sent him to the bench and Denver found their high-powered offense without their three best finishers. Without Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, or Murray, the Nuggets were left running dribble handoffs toward Torrey Craig and Devin Harris. The result was that the offense got stuck in the mud.
And for every missed Harris jumper or failed drive by Craig, the Bucks capitalized by getting out in transition where they outscored the Nuggets 23 to 7. Jabari Parker was the main beneficiary of so many extra possessions, he finished with 35 points, many of his points on the break or the result of mismatches created in transition. After outscoring the Bucks by 21 in the second quarter, the Nuggets got outscored by 22 in the 3rd and trailed by 13 entering the final frame.
The fourth quarter didn’t start off with a bang for the Nuggets. Milwaukee was able to build an 18 point lead midway through the quarter. That isn’t a typo. With just over 6 minutes remaining, the Nuggets trailed by 18 points. But with 3:43 seconds remaining and with a score of 107-97, Giannis Antetokounmpo picked up his 6th foul and had to the leave the game. On his way off the floor, he also picked up a technical, breathing the tiniest amount of life into the Nuggets.
Denver took advantage.
A furious rally was capped off when Murray grabbed a steal in the waning seconds of regulation and dribbled up the court for what would’ve been a game-tying three-pointer. He was fouled on the play. With 17,000 fans on their feet and holding their breath, Murray knocked down free throw, after free throw, after free throw, tying the game at 111-111. The fans at Pepsi Center haven’t been more excited in years. Fans were in the aisles jumping up and down, everyone in the arena started to feel like they were in for something special.
Overtime belonged to Denver. The Nuggets made some clutch shots, including a Murray drive to the rim, a huge Jokic three-pointer, and a Millsap floater. The game appeared put away but there appeared to be one more twist left in store as Malik Beasley bricked two free throws to keep Milwaukee within three points with 17 seconds remaining. Fortunately, a defensive stop squashed Milwaukee’s best chance. Beasley was put back on the line and this time he was able to redeem himself, knocking down both and giving the Nuggets a three-point lead. Parker’s desperation three-pointer fell short and the Nuggets walked away with an improbable 128-125 victory and a renewed and growing sense of hope that their season isn’t over yet.
This game was a metaphor for Denver’s season
The Nuggets had to play without some key players thanks to a couple of freak injuries, they made runs, they had a few collapses, and right when everything looked like it was over, the team found a way to win. With just five games remaining and a trip to the playoffs still within reach, the Nuggets showed us that they aren’t going down without a fight.
After the game, head coach Michael Malone had some pointed words directed at and about the media.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone: “We still believe...a lot of people in this circle have given up on us, they say all these things about us. That’s okay...” pic.twitter.com/qNTDDKNtXF— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) April 2, 2018
While it isn’t not the media’s job to keep faith against tough odds, it is nice to see the team rallying behind a “nobody believes in us” mentality. If that’s what it takes to win, I hope the continued skepticism of a downtrodden fanbase provides enough fuel to keep this two-game winning streak going.
Millsap and Jokic keep getting better and better
61 points, 26 rebounds, and 10 assists. That was their combined stat line. They also shot 24-44 from the field. The basketball gods robbed us of a full season with these two but it’s not too late to hope for one last Cinderella run behind the unique talents of the NBA’s most offensively versatile front court. There is a very fair argument to be made that the Nuggets are actually a healthy roster away from being one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.
Jokic after the game said it best when asked about how this team can go on such huge runs. “We are that kind of team. We can beat anyone, probably.” The Nuggets are confident and their front court duo is a big reason why. If Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler can get healthy ahead of schedule, this team might be ready to hit this final stretch of games with the force of a giant awakened from a season-long slumber.
As the fourth quarter rolled along and Milwaukee got off to such a big lead, I started writing my recap. It was a somber one centered around blown opportunities. But in a night in which it feels like anything is possible, it’s worth looking back at the discarded words that seemed to provide a summary for this Nuggets season. Here is that except:
The hardest part about losing this game to the Bucks is that had Denver won, the stars were stating to align for them to make one last push for the playoffs. The Timberwolves, Pelicans, and Clippers all lost meaning a Nuggets win would’ve allowed Denver to control their own destiny. It still remains that if Denver can win out they will likely make the playoffs but quarters like the 3rd quarter just seem to be a part of this team’s DNA this season. This is who they are and, should they miss the playoffs, it will be one of the first lines on their season’s obituary.
Sports are best when they remind us all that anything is possible. Easter Sunday at Pepsi Center was one of those nights and it is a night I won’t soon forget. Tonight, with thousands of fans each in disbelief at the comeback they witnessed, everyone inside the arena felt that reminder and felt as proud of their Denver Nuggets as they have in at least five seasons. It’s still fair to be skeptical, but you’ve got to be less skeptical than you were a few hours ago.
There’s still hope. And hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
Has your opinion of Denver’s playoff odds changed after this game?
This poll is closed
I’ve always said they were going to make it
After that game, I’m a believer!
Anything is possible, but I’m still not optimistic?
Nope, they’re still gonna miss