A curious thing happened as the Denver Nuggets were tanking their most important road trip of the year: they grew. A trip that started off with a horrendous loss and continued with expected losses to Eastern Conference playoff teams flipped the script against the Oklahoma City Thunder and started this last stretch of single-elimination games that culminates tonight with the winner-take-all game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. In both the losses and the wins after the debacle in Memphis, Denver has finally demonstrated the kind of growth and flexibility that had been absent for much of the season. In neurological terms, they improved their plasticity.
Brain plasticity is the idea that different brain functions can be taken over by other, under-utilized parts. Its premise is that adaptation remains an important function in the brain and allows for parts to be damaged and have their functions re-tasked to other, healthier parts. If the brain were a fixed organ with no ability to adapt, then any damage or new requirements would be unable to be accounted for.
This team all year has lacked that plasticity. The Nuggets are terrific front-runners, and when things are going well they can steamroll into great success. When things go poorly, though, the team has lacked bounce-back capabilities. They could not stop below-average teams from beating them, nor small runs from becoming big runs, nor achieve the necessary stops even when the offense was going well. In fact, that all happened in losing efforts on the road just a couple of weeks ago when it looked like Denver’s playoff hopes were sunk.
Then Denver threw everything it had at the Toronto Raptors on a back-to-back instead of suffering a letdown. They battled in a pair of overtime victories as an exhausted squad that still fought for the last possession and final score, then outlasted a pair of talented teams in Indiana and Minnesota in tightly contested games. The Nuggets had not been doing that, going 2-6 in their previous 8 games with a point differential of 5 or fewer before the OKC victory.
This team has found different ways to win over the past six games. They only had four players in double figures and got out-rebounded against the Trail Blazers, but won with defense and effort down the stretch while scoring under 90 points. They unleashed offense in an elimination game against the Los Angeles Clippers, dropping 130+ on a team with the same thing to fight for that Denver had.
Sometimes growth can masquerade as losses. Sometimes growth is a delayed-gratification reward, as responsibilities are re-tasked and the newly-empowered parts ramp up toward competency. The biggest issue Denver faced for most of the season was its limited ability to adapt to changing situations. The loss of Paul Millsap for several months hamstrung the defense, but his responsibilities as a finisher and defensive lynchpin also weren’t re-assigned within Denver’s structure. Part of that is because Millsap is a rather unique piece on Denver’s roster, but much of Denver’s roster is built of one-off, unique pieces. There is no backup for Nikola Jokic either, and Will Barton does not play they way any other Nugget does. It was a struggle to get so many unique players to play differently.
But despite the injury to Gary Harris, the Nuggets have shown a beautiful ability to adapt over the last couple of weeks. Denver figured out how to move Harris’s responsibilities onto new players, mostly Will Barton and Torrey Craig. But in the last six games they’ve been able to re-task on the fly during games as well, which was a big issue earlier in the year. This roster does not perfectly fit with strengths covering weaknesses, but it has a lot of talent and lately that talent has shone through.
The most curious part of Michael Malone’s tenure has been Denver’s inability to retain the emphasis needed to make their particular player structure work. Everything gets relearned every season, whether it’s Jokic’s importance to the offense or the constantly-morphing but equally-ineffective defensive principles. Things need to be re-learned in-season as well, and no one can progress if they are constantly re-inventing the wheel. There’s a reason that written language and its ability to pass on generationally-built learning helped societal growth explode.
Except that after the Memphis loss the Nuggets seemed to finally learn the right lessons. Malone has griped all year about having to coach effort, but he’s been doing just that recently and it’s been working. Players have realized amongst themselves that when one thing they are doing is not working they need to shift focus. The team has become more of an amoeba, resembling its star player Nikola Jokic more and more. His focus is always on “whatever role I need to play” rather than the role he wants, but even he has been willing to take control more when it’s required and delegate in his preferred manner off of that initial control.
The Nuggets did not take to finger pointing with the season on the line. Each player and coach looked in the mirror, decided what they could do to help, and started doing it. The games have not been easy, and much of the time they haven’t been pretty either. They don’t call it “doing the dirty work” for no reason. But as Denver’s post season hopes come down to the final game in which both teams have everything on the line, the stage has been set for years to come. A young team has learned how to sacrifice for the team concept. Playmakers are becoming leaders, rookie-scale players are taking final shots in big games, and veterans are finding their place game by game.
NBA seasons are long, and change is hard. Teams change path more like ocean liners than speedboats, but the coaches and players are all aimed at the same target now. I hope they hit it, and make the playoffs. I hope they shock the world and get out of the first round. But mostly I hope this team remembers the lessons of this season and keeps this plasticity, this adaptability in the coming years. Things will not always go perfectly. They have not for many teams in the West this year, as injuries have afflicted most playoff squads. Good teams overcome, and the Nuggets have proven they too are that kind of good team. They desperately needed that in their DNA.
They just have one more obstacle to overcome, one more win to get, in order to show they’re a good playoff team too.