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Stiffs roundtable: a playoff victory

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The Stiffs go around the table following Denver’s first playoff win in 6 years

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

We often use these roundtables as an excuse to look ahead, but let’s take a moment to reflect. The Denver Nuggets just won their first playoff game since 2013, what’s your initial reaction?

Brendan Vogt: My first thought was of those who have stuck with this team through thick and thin. There’s a small core of incredible fans that comprise this community and they deserve a competitive basketball team. This team is capable of more and there’s more work to be done, but that was a real moment. The Nuggets are back.

Ryan Blackburn: Relief. Like it or not, the expectations of being the 2 seed are very restricting. The Nuggets had little margin for error this playoff series going against the always ready Gregg Popovich led Spurs, and that margin evaporated after losing game one. While Denver struggled to break through for most of game two, they used a heroic effort by Jamal Murray to push them over the top. He took the monkey off the back of every Nuggets fan with that clutch performance, and now, the Nuggets know they can win when they shoot the ball well, something I expect them to do going forward.

Adam Mares: “This is what playoff basketball is like?” It’d been so long you almost forget what an emotional roller-coaster a do-or-die game feels like. And make no mistake, this was do-or-die. And the Nuggets almost died! Now they are very much alive and, hopefully, have some momentum to carry into game 3 in San Antonio.

Evan Fiala: Validated. We aren’t all crazy for still believing in this team, even at their darkest hour when it felt like they were getting exposed (and don’t pretend like that didn’t cross your mind ever last night. It did). That fourth quarter was so incredible it almost wipes away how painful the first 7 quarters of the series had been. And now it’s a clean slate heading into San Antonio. Anything can happen.

Gordon Gross: Recency bias is a big thing. If the Nuggets had won the first game and lost the second, I would be down heading into San Antonio. But fighting through 7+ quarters of adversity to tie the series at 1-1? That feels like a victory and a good omen wrapped up in one. There’s a bit of euphoria involved in avoiding that 0-2 start and getting into this playoff series at last.

Jamal Murray went from ‘Winter in the North’ cold to thermonuclear in the fourth quarter. Does that performance give you hope that he will be the player Denver needs him to be going forward?

Vogt: How the hell am I supposed to know? The early returns on the Murray experience are all over the place. There’s no guarantee that Murray is able to put together complete performances on a consistent basis going forward, but every time this kid slips, every single time he looks like he might not be ready for the moment, he rises. He digs deep and finds the fire that got him here. Perhaps more important than his shotmaking going forward though, is his decision making as a point guard and his play on the other end of the court. Murray has to be better in those areas.

Blackburn: Evaluating Murray is almost impossible based on the two extremes of his performances. On one hand, he struggled with every aspect of basketball through the first three quarters, but a bite of pretzels and am incendiary fourth quarter later, he looked more like a superstar than he had for most of the year. I’m still holding back my final judgments, but the dude is just 22 years old. His tough shotmaking ability is off the charts, and as he continues to add more to his game, he will rise up point guard ranks by his mid-twenties and hopefully be the aggressive complement to Jokic’s flexible nature.

Mares: That’s a series-deciding question. Through two games, it seems pretty clear that the key matchup is Jamal Murray vs. Derrick White. White dominated the first 7 quarters of this battle. Murray’s 4th quarter in game two brought everything back to even. Seeing the ball go through the hoop should salvage Murray’s confidence but who knows what game 3 will bring?

Fiala: It is obvious that he is the X-factor for this series on both ends of the floor. Derrick White still his Murray’s number, and while it’s not like Murray is going to magically get good at defense by Thursday, if he actually makes his shots and takes pressure off of Jokic it will make up for those other deficiencies. If not, you get results like the first 34 of last night. That said, Murray is a prime example of a rhythm shooter. If he’s still in his groove it will bode well for Denver.

Gross: No. This is what Murray does: he goes HAM for a quarter or a half as some sort of thermonuclear microwave, and then cools off for three games. Jamal has taken 41 shots in two games, while dishing just four assists and playing all the on-ball defense of a broken turnstile. Denver needs him to be a judicious weapon, not a chucker. Hopefully finally getting his shot to fall in the playoffs will make a difference in his consistency the rest of the series, but he needs that consistency to carry over to all of his play, not just his shot. The biggest danger for Denver is that Murray believes he needs to shoot the Nuggets to victory with a shot that’s not falling instead of playing Denver Basketball.

Ok, now let’s look ahead. The series is tied 1-1 — where’s your confidence level as the Nuggets head to San Antonio?

Vogt: The optimist in me is begging for the microphone, but the realist understands Denver’s record in San Antonio. A win there is unlikely, though if they get one I think they roll to a series win. Denver is the better team. My confidence in their ability to prove that, however, is tempered. 5-6/10.

Blackburn: About a 4 out of 10. It took a Herculean effort from Murray to keep Denver in it, and I’m not sure they pick up a game in San Antonio to reclaim home court. If they can’t, Denver will be down 3-1 in the series and getting very desperate. If they can though, I would expect Denver to use that momentum to push their talent toward a series victory. Will it happen? I don’t know. I lean no, but then again, the Nuggets have surprised me for awhile now.

Mares: I’d say I’ve been upgraded to hopeful. That’s like six notches up from where I was halfway through the 3rd quarter. The Nuggets need to start hitting shots and logic says they are well past due. Malik Beasley is probably due for a minutes upgrade and he’s one of the few Nuggets players to not be shooting the worst splits of his career. Nikola Jokic has struggled against Jakob Peoltl but in the past he’s been a guy who figures a defender out the more he sees him. So I’m hopeful Denver can get rolling and look like the team we all know they can be.

Fiala: This has the makings of a seven game series written all over it - I’m confident enough to think Denver will split the games in San Antonio, at least. Every time this season when the Nuggets were in a slump they came back and rattled off wins. Of course, in a playoff chess match that becomes more difficult, but Denver is still so talented that if they figure things out and hit shots they will be just fine.

Gross: 6/10. I think Denver takes one in San Antonio and it’s a seven game series, as Evan said. Could Denver lose twice on its home court - the best in the NBA this year - just to end the year in heartbreak? Sure. But this is the learning experience this team needs, and I expect them to take that education and pass this first round test. It’ll just be a nail-biting experience until then. Welcome back to the playoffs, Nuggets fans: it hasn’t been a kind place for Denver to be most years, but apparently teams do get out of the first round sometimes and Denver still has a good shot at it.