There was no champagne in the visitor’s locker room at the TD Garden on Monday night. The walls were not lined with plastic, there were no goggles in sight, and there was no trophy to pass around and pose with.
There was no champagne. So it was water that flew across the room when Michael Malone and his Denver Nuggets celebrated their first playoff berth since 2013.
“We ain’t satisfied,” Malone began as he addressed his team in the locker room. “But we’re going to celebrate tonight.”
It’s a slightly trickier thing to navigate than it may seem. The balance of satisfaction and hunger, the challenge of celebrating accomplishments without losing sight of shared goals. To end this playoff drought with a team that few outside of Denver saw as ready to compete at such a high level is not insignificant. This is an organization with a cursed a history, and a fan base that’s all too familiar with the sour taste of defeat.
This is a worthy cause for celebration. But these Nuggets are after more than a playoff appearance.
“16 teams make the playoffs,” Jokic told Altitude’s Chris Dempsey after the game. “We are not special. We want to go make something happen in the playoffs.”
For Jokic and some of his younger teammates, this may be uncharted territory, but the notion that this team can play with anyone is old news. They’re capable of more, they know they are, and they’re champing at the bit to prove it.
But some of the more experienced voices in that locker room have stressed the importance of reflecting on one’s accomplishments at the highest level of basketball. Voices that belong to Malone, Paul Millsap, Will Barton—even Gary Harris, who’s actually the longest tenured Nugget at just 24-years-old.
“I done seen a lot,” Harris told reporters in the locker room following Saturday night’s win over the Indiana Pacers, when asked to reflect on how much things have changed since he arrived in Denver. “We’ve come a long way.”
“We’re definitely going to be happy,” Harris continued. “It’s been one of our goals for the last few years, and for us to be so close to it—it’s great.”
The doors to the Nuggets locker room have been revolving ones over the last five years. Shortly after Harris arrived in Denver, Will Barton was traded to the Nuggets from the Portland Trail Blazers. Since that trade, the entire roster has turned over with the exception of those two guards.
“It means a lot to me,” Barton told the media following the pacers game. “That’s why I wanted to re-sign here. That’s why I came back.
“I’m big on finishing what I started and seeing this whole thing through. That’s very important for me, to come here and try to change the culture around here. For us to be right there, it means a lot to me.”
Harris and Barton have seen a lot in their time here, the former in particular. Harris was drafted into an NBA organization that was approaching rock bottom, only to transform into one that’s knocking on the door of a deep postseason run. He was never guaranteed these brighter days. One never is in this competitive of a league. That’s why his head coach and his veteran teammates have stressed the importance of taking time to appreciate moments like these.
“Always celebrate your accomplishments,” Millsap told reporters on Saturday when asked about the importance of reflecting on a playoff berth when the time comes. “Appreciate them. Whatever we do, we’re going to appreciate it and we’re going to use that to take another step to where we want to be.
“That’s not going to be it for us. We want to continue to get better, continue to get wins, but you do have to celebrate your accomplishments.”
What Millsap knows, what his head coach knows, what Gary Harris has already learned, is that in the world of basketball the sun doesn’t always come out the next day. Windows to compete close faster than we’d like to think, progression is not linear, and success is not always sustainable.
Qualifying for the playoffs may not be the ultimate goal for this team, but it’s one they’ve had on the board, and it’s one they’ve accomplished together. They’ve earned the right to reflect on that, to appreciate that.
There’s danger in complacency, but accomplishments can be converted into fuel the same way defeat can.
The Nuggets lost in game 82 last season. The bitterness of that defeat motivated them to put together one of the best regular seasons in Denver’s NBA history. Now, they’re tasked with turning this sweet taste of success into an insatiable hunger for more.
Few coaches in the league can hold a candle to Malone’s quotability. And perhaps no one person has a better perspective on both what Denver has accomplished and what lies ahead of them now.
That perspective was captured by the Athletic’s Nick Kosmider on Monday night:
“It’s party time, man,” Malone said with a grin. “I told the guys after: ‘We should feel good about this. Life is about celebrating moments.’ I learned that from my mother and father. We’ve worked too hard not to celebrate it. But it’s a fine line. You can celebrate it and enjoy the moment, but then turn the page.”
When that page is turned, there will be new chapters for the Nuggets to write. We don’t know if the chapters to come will include more celebrations. We don’t know when, or if this group will walk into a locker room stocked with champagne. But we know how hard they’ve worked to get here. We know how far they’ve come. And we know how much this means to those who have sacrificed so much to make it happen.
The Denver Nuggets are playoff-bound.