...Just watching that interview makes my blood boil. We all remember the Denver Nuggets loss to the Portland Trail Blazers just over a year ago, how it didn’t officially eliminate them but effectively eliminated them. Tonight, they face that very same situation again, except there’s a chance a loss to the Blazers will actually eliminate the Nuggets outright. After an inspiring five game win streak against fierce competition that’s included wins in virtually every way you can get them, thanks to the top 3 seeds in the Western conference all losing against seeds 5-7 (also the Los Angeles Lakers provided no help against the 4th seeded Utah Jazz) on Saturday, Denver still is on the outside looking in and teetering on the edge of elimination.
“I wish those guys a happy summer”, it’s the only thing that should be on the whiteboard today. It’s game 81, there’s nothing left that should need to be said about effort, about fundamentals, about what play to call or which action to run. This is go time and as was proven over the weekend, if the Nuggets are going to do this thing, they’re going to do it by themselves. There will be no Blazers resting with a three seed already locked up, no Damian Lillard out with a tender ankle. If they win? They’ll earn what is almost certain to be a winner take all game 82 in Minneapolis against division rival the Minnesota Timberwolves who will have Jimmy Butler back this time because the Nuggets certainly aren’t lucky enough to catch the Twolves without their best player twice. No, if the this is going to happen, it’ll be on the merits of Denver and Denver alone...and that has me terrified.
Some people might say the fanbase prematurely gave up on the team after their crucial seven game road trip was 2-4 heading into the final matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they’d be right. Nuggets fans, die hard Nuggets fans, are realists. We’ve been here before, all too many times before. While players and coaches have come and gone and while this current team only has two players who were even in a Nugget uniform the last time they made the postseason, the fans who have been here for decades remember every painful memory.
It’s not that we want to be negative, or that we don’t want to believe it will be different this time around, it’s just the way these things have gone for this franchise...
I myself have watched this team for a quarter century and can pick out any era and find where our hopes rose only to be crushed.
Chandler and Faried can tell you all about 2013 if you weren’t around then. The Nuggets set a franchise record for wins, trying to prove in a super team era that team ball and free flowing offense could win. George Karl lectured about how a team with a rotation of good to very good players could be better than a team with a few great players and not much else. That Nuggets squad was one of the best to ever grace a basketball court in Denver, but Danilo Gallinari went down with a catastrophic knee injury in the last month of the season and the Nuggets drew the coming out party of the now world class Golden State Warriors in the first round. GM Masai Ujiri leaves for Toronto, Karl gets fired, Gallinari misses an entire season and the rest is history.
The Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony Nuggets are also one of the greatest teams to ever play in Denver. Billups gave them a steady veteran hand and scoring at the point guard position. Proving to be the perfect ingredient to an incredibly talented roster that included a superstar in his prime and major role players like Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith. The Nuggets stormed through the playoffs for the first time in Melo’s career, dominating the New Orleans Hornets and giving the Dallas Mavericks a gentlemen’s sweep. Even though the powerhouse Lakers stood in their way the Nuggets looked primed to finally, finally get the franchise into the finals. Instead, two inbounds plays, two lousy, miniscule, routine inbounds plays proved to be the difference and sent the Lakers to the finals against an Orlando Magic team headlined by Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Karl would get cancer the next season, derailing another chance at a high seed and deep playoff run and the following offseason Melo refused to sign an extension with the team.
What about the entire Melo era up to that point? Five straight first round losses that just got more painful each year. Losing to the Timberwolves Melo’s rookie year was fine, and losing to the San Antonio Spurs his second would have been too, except the Nuggets opened up the series with a win AT San Antonio after riding a ridiculous wave on the hire of Karl to close out the season. There was belief that year, but the Spurs won the next four games and the fans were crushed. Then there was the Los Angeles Clippers, the best chance the Nuggets had in two decades at getting a playoff series win, instead they got a gentlemen’s sweep. The Nuggets re-loaded, traded for freaking Allen Iverson and stormed into a playoff rematch with the Spurs. Denver’s two superstars powered them to a game 1 win that was once again AT San Antonio. What happened next? The Spurs won 4 straight. The following season despite winning fifty games on the backs of Melo and AI Denver was an 8 seed and unceremoniously swept by the Lakers in the first round. Somebody started a website called firegeorgekarl.com and AI was traded three games into the next season.
The 1994 Nuggets, the pinnacle of my fandom, with Dikembe Mutombo gleefully clutching the ball above his head, lying on the ground in jubilation. The most iconic moment in Nuggets history. What people forget though is Denver nearly made history twice in that postseason. The very next series they stormed back from a 3-0 deficit against the Jazz and were on the verge of the most improbable trip to the conference finals ever. However, the Jazz outscored the Nuggets in each of the first three quarters and led by 15 at the start of the fourth on their way to a series clinching blowout. Laphonso Ellis shot 2-9 for 5 points, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf needed 14 shots to get 14 points and the team got destroyed by Karl Malone. The next offseason Ellis fractured his knee cap just weeks before training camp and was never the same. Mutombo played two more season and left in free agency when the team didn’t want to pay him. Abdul-Rauf got embroiled in an National Anthem controversy and was traded the same year. The Nuggets actually made the playoffs in 95, but they got swept in the first round by the Spurs and wouldn’t return for 8 years.
And so here the Nuggets are, back in 2018 riding a five game winning streak and a nobody believes in us mantra. The fans want to believe, they really do, but they’re all just like me, they remember being let down over and over and over again. Despite all of that, the Pepsi Center will be packed, it will be the loudest it’s ever been for years and all I am asking of the team is can we just please not go through it again? This is a new team with their own story to tell and there’s no reason to think that they can’t pull this off. That’s the hope every fan of the team is riding on tonight but having it crushed...by Jusuf freaking Nurkic of all people, would be so demoralizing. So please, Nuggets, we are begging you, prove there is reason to believe. Pull this thing off and get into the playoffs. No one should expect anymore than that. Any wins in the Playoffs, especially if it’s against the Houston Rockets, is gravy at this point. Don’t make us live through another post game interview like the one at the start of this column, let’s be the one’s with the interview telling Jusuf that we can’t wait to see him again in a week, let’s make some real rivalries by getting someone back when it matters the most, let’s make #NuggLife about resilience and beating the odds. Let’s just win.