The Nuggets finished the season with the two seed in the Western Conference and 54 wins! How do you feel about the journey and how the Nuggets navigated their 82 games this season?
Gordon Gross: Better than expected. Look, it’s a young team without much vocal leadership outside of the coaching position. This team had a huge rash of injures starting in the first week of the season with Barton and carrying forward for the next five months. Despite that Denver was good in the clutch, remembered to center their offense around star Nikola Jokic during that time, defended the home court like demons and survived the Western Conference to eke out a two seed. It wasn’t always pretty, but for a team this young and inexperienced at being in the driver’s seat it’s a proud accomplishment. Let’s hope they’re not satisfied.
Ryan Blackburn: After the last 10 to 15 games, this season feels a little less awesome. For the majority of the year, the Nuggets were resilient, always relentless offensively and locking in defensively when it mattered. For the last several games though, the Nuggets haven’t been able to throw a pea in the ocean when it mattered. Against the Timberwolves, Denver shot 30 percent from three and it could have been worse. Still, in terms of expectations, this year was amazing overall. 10 out of 10. But now, the real test begins.
Adam Mares: This felt like the longest 82-game season that I can remember. There were so many peaks and valleys throughout the year that it’s hard to analyze it as a singular thing but taken as a whole, this was an incredible regular season. The Nuggets grew up quite a bit over the last 6 months, especially the team’s two most important players, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. So overall, I think you have to grade this season very highly and you have to feel good about the way it all unfolded.
Brendan Vogt: What’s funny about the peaks and valleys analogy here is that the valleys were never really too low, but the peaks were so surprisingly high that we all adjusted our expectations for them halfway through. This was a dream regular season. If you had told a Nuggets fan they’d finish with the two seed over the summer they might have laughed at you. If you then explained the injury situation, they might have just slapped you in the face. What a wild ride. I’ll remember this season forever.
A lot happened over the final two days of the season to help the Nuggets claim the two seed and send the Rockets down to the four seed. Could the seeding have come out any better for the Nuggets than it is right now?
Gross: They could have avoided the Spurs. I’m on record as not wanting anything to do with a Pop-coached squad in round one, but considering the alternatives for the rest of the playoffs it’s the best outcome anyone could have hoped for. Now the Nuggets need to take advantage and win their first-round series to pay off that seeding luck.
Blackburn: I’m with Gordon. The only downside of this configuration is facing the Spurs over a team like the Los Angeles Clippers. Still, the Nuggets have to be the favorites to make the Western Conference Finals now, as the Warriors, Rockets, and Jazz are all on the other side of the West bracket.
Mares: I don’t think so. The Spurs are really tough and Denver will only be slight favorites to make it out of the first round but they are probably as favorable a matchup as any team out west besides the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers. Denver has a legitimate chance to capitalize on this amazing season by making a run to the Western Conference Finals.
Vogt: Beggars can’t be choosers. This is the brightest timeline, Spurs notwithstanding. There are no easy outs in the West, but the Nuggets should be favored in that series despite their inexperience in this arena. There’s a real path to the Western Conference Finals now. But let’s take this one round at a time.
The San Antonio Spurs are Denver’s first round opponent this year. Which single matchup is the most pivotal in deciding the winner of this series?
Gross: Jokic vs. passivity? Look, I know I’m supposed to say a player matchup here, but Jokic has no matchup on the Spurs and most of his struggles are internal as Denver looks to him to conquer his general geniality and become a first-rate killer. So lets say Pop vs. Malone instead. 7 game series are all about matchups, and nobody is better about making teams showcase their weaknesses in order to win than Pop. The Nuggets will likely have to win by playing through the weaknesses in their lineup construction and their still-recovering guards. Malone is the one who will have to turn that into a winning hand.
Blackburn: LaMarcus Aldridge and small ball vs Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. The Spurs don’t have a big man that they truly trust outside of Aldridge, and I expect Popovich to go small frequently in this series to force Jokic into a tough position defensively. When he’s defending Aldridge, he has to stay out of foul trouble while forcing Aldridge into tough mid range looks. When Millsap is being defended by a smaller player like Rudy Gay or Davis Bertans, he has to take advantage of that matchup.
Mares: Michael Malone vs. Gregg Popovich. I think this Nuggets roster is a lot more talented than the Spurs but even Malone himself would tell you that the Spurs have an edge at the coaching position. Popovich is clever, he knows how to work officials, and he’s just comfortable with the ebbs and flows of a playoff series. Malone is a wildcard. He’s a coach of the year candidate (if not front runner) but he’s also in uncharted territory. He’ll need to push the right buttons, make the right adjustments, maybe even tinker with the lineup all while helping his young team stay calm and focused in the most pressure-filled games of their lives.
Vogt: Jamal Murray vs. himself. We’ve seen Murray operate from the point guard position at a higher level than ever before down the stretch. His shotmaking is important, but the ball will be in his hands and it’s up to him to make the right decisions. Jokic will the best player on the floor. Can Murray get him the ball in advantageous positions? Will he stay composed and poised on such a bright stage? The Nuggets will need an affirmative answer to those questions.
Who wins the series: San Antonio or Denver?
Gross: Denver in 6, but I expect 6 tough games. Pop doesn’t know how to make things easy on anyone, especially his friends (of which Malone is certainly counted one).
Blackburn: I’m going Denver in 5 games or Denver in 7 games. I don’t see the Nuggets winning a Game 6 in San Antonio, but I think they take care of business on their home floor and might simply kick things into overdrive when they play in San Antonio for the first time around.
Mares: This is such a tough one to predict. Denver is a lot better, but San Antonio is a lot more experienced. I’ll say Denver in 7 but these first two games are going to test Denver’s mettle. If they can survive that initial wave of nerves and get acclimated to playoff basketball quickly, they’ll march on to the second round.
Vogt: I’ll take the Nuggets in 6, which will obviously require winning in San Antonio—a damn-near impossible feat for these Nuggets. There are a lot of reasons to fear the Spurs, but the Nuggets have a better basketball team. Full-stop. Talent should prevail.