It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always fun. But the Denver Nuggets have survived and advanced in the NBA playoffs for the first time in a decade. The floor is yours for an open ended reaction:
Brendan Vogt: This is a real moment. Some teams count rings, not second round appearances, but the reality is Denver isn’t one of those teams. It’s been so long since they’ve had anything to celebrate and there actually is some vindication in this modest accomplishment. This team and their fans were great all season and they deserved that ending. It wasn’t convincing, but it happened, and it will temper some of that doubt going forward.
Ryan Blackburn: I can’t get over the number of receipts there are on Twitter of the Nuggets being repeatedly classified as frauds throughout the regular season and this playoff series. After Game 1, there was panic in the streets. After Game 3, many assumed the Nuggets were cooked. Through it all, the Nuggets embodied their most important trait: perseverance. Denver weathered a storm of injuries to key players early in the season. They weathered an outbreak of criticisms from all outlets. They weathered a flurry of Spurs hot shooting at various points in this series and cold shooting from themselves. Through it all, they persevered, and that’s why they’re moving on to the second round.
Zach Mikash: Adam Mares said it when we ere podcasting at the beginning of the season when I was worried about them performing consistently: “this team is good.” I have to admit I didn’t quite think they were as good as Adam did but man it’s pretty much the mantra for this season. Losing in the first round has been so beaten into Nuggets fans that it almost felt inevitable it was going to happen again, especially when they were trailing by double digits in games 2 and 4. They overcame it all though and it was such a microcosm of the entire season. This team is good and when it comes to Nuggets history, there’s a decent chance they will become the best.
The Nuggets saw a fair amount of what the postseason has to offer in their debut. Their proverbial “firsts” have come and gone, having played, won, and lost, both at home and on the road. They won a series they once trailed in and they came out on top of their first game 7. How has your confidence in the Nuggets as a playoff team changed following those seven games?
Vogt: The supporting cast was good enough to get the job done, but their best player really did carry them. That’s ok. That’s how it works in the playoffs. What’s important is that we know Jokic is ready for the moment and his teammates are willing to give everything they have on the defensive end. That latter dynamic has elevated their baseline—it just won them a series—and our cemented trust in Jokic is enough to have me feeling encouraged. A sweep would have been more convincing, but I’m more confident in their abilities despite going to seven games as the definitive favorite. I think they are as well with a game 7 win under their belt.
Blackburn: My confidence in Denver as a playoff team was about a 6 out of 10 before the first round and sits at about a 7 out of 10 now. The Nuggets players, coaches, and fans know what they are getting out of Nikola Jokic every night, and that’s the most important factor in any playoff series. If the stars don’t play well, it’s hard to move on. The problem of course has been the rest of the roster. As great as Jamal Murray was at various points, he truly is hit or miss in terms of impact. Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are solid two-way starters with limited ceilings. The rest of the roster has immense flaws. How Denver handles those flaws will determine their playoff future, both now and in the future. If the supporting cast around those core four continues to improve? I see Denver making some more playoff waves.
Mikash: The inexperience factor was a bigger deal than I expected. I didn’t put too much stock in it to be honest but no doubt it was there. The Nuggets lost games 1, 3 and 6. For the majority of their rotation that was their first playoff game, their first road playoff game and their first elimination playoff game. Even in their first game 7 there was jitters. All that should be past them now though. After each loss we saw a composed team come out and take care of business when they had to, and in a pivotal game 5 they played their best game of the series. The amount of growth that should come from this playoff series can’t be understated.
Nikola Jokic excelled in his first ever playoff series. Did his performance meet or exceed your expectations?
Vogt: There’s something about this debut that I’m fixated on but struggling to articulate. Jokic was exceptional. You’ve all seen the numbers by now—he averaged a near triple double, and his game 6 performance was a true playoff masterpiece, the loss notwithstanding. And yet, to those of us who really watch Jokic closely, or at least to me, it didn’t necessarily feel dominant. He missed some easy looks around the rim. He was hesitant to take the three early in the series. His floater wasn’t properly calibrated. He was the best player in the series, but he can be even better. There’s no point in trying to identify his ceiling at this point. He’ll keep raising the bar.
Blackburn: He slightly exceeded my expectations. I expected him to do most of what he did, but I didn’t expect him to carry as much of the scoring load as he did. Like I imagined, he struggled with fatigue at times, as carrying a roster is a tough business. But through it all, he did exactly what the Nuggets needed him to do and played an excellent playoff series. He was consistently the best player on the floor, and that’s all anyone can ask of him.
Mikash: He met my hopeful expectations and far exceed my pessimistic ones. It was something no one could truly know until they saw it, but Nikola showed everyone that he is an absolute great player in the playoffs. We’ve seen moments in the past where he’s come up big when they needed it the most, but never for seven games straight under pressure and with intensity like this. Absolutely phenomenal series from the Joker, hard to think of one by another Nugget that was better.
It was also Michael Malone’s first ever playoff series and he came out victorious in a matchup with one of his idols, Gregg Popovich. How would you grade Malone’s debut?
Vogt: His team won a series because of their defensive effort, that’s a feather under his cap. His players caught one across the jaw and they responded, that’s reflective of the culture he’s fostered. He benched one of his starters and more beloved players in the locker room in Will Barton, in favor of a former G-League player, and it changed the series. That’s not as easy as many people think. But Malone pulled nearly all of the right strings in these seven games. He trusted his star. He challenged his young players. He stayed poised when they looked to him for leadership. Perhaps most importantly, the seeds he planted four years ago now bear fruit. His team just won a playoff series for each other. That’s an A-debut for Malone.
Blackburn: If I’m forced to give a full trade, Malone gets an A-minus. No matter how Denver got here, Malone gets a grade in the A range for winning the series. There are aspects of his coaching I think he can improve, and he has to find a way to give Jokic more rest, especially as these playoffs wear on. Jokic has now played 87 games during the 2018-19 regular season and playoffs, including a career high 2,765 minutes combined between both segments. The Nuggets must find a way to weather the storm without Jokic, or else the Serbian center will burn out in the playoffs from overuse. Either way, Malone pushed most of the right buttons during these seven games and gets an A-minus for that effort and execution.
Mikash: I give him an A+. He took a group of guys who had basically never played in the playoffs against a team of playoff veterans, some of which sporting championship rings, and an all time great coach with five rings of his own and Malone’s team beat them. They experienced every pitfall of being a young team in the playoffs, and yet they still won. He waited until the right moment to make a lineup change and when the majority of people whether it was fans, writers or pundits on the airwaves were saying how obvious the solution was to insert Malik Beasley, Malone went with Torrey Craig instead which was absolutely the right call. Beasley was shooting great, but Malone knew putting in Craig would grind the Spurs dribble penetration to a halt and it did exactly that. Denver was 1-2 before he made that move, they went 3-1 after. Honestly you can’t ask for a better coaching performance in my opinion.