It’s safe to say that this is not how the Denver Nuggets expected their season to end, swept in the second round on their home court by a team that hadn’t made the postseason in over a decade, Nikola Jokic already in the locker room after an absolute bogus ejection, Jamal Murray in street clothes on the bench with his head in his hands wondering how different things would be if he weren’t injured.
Indeed, after a run to the Western Conference Finals last season, expectations heading into 2020-21 were clear: the Nuggets would be competing for an NBA Championship.
Sometimes things just don’t work out.
Like the other final four teams from the bubble, Denver lost the war of attrition after Murray tore his ACL in early April, followed shortly thereafter by injuries to Monte Morris, Will Barton and PJ Dozier. Morris and Barton were able to return eventually, but the glaring absence of Murray and Dozier became too much to overcome against the elite backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Still, the Nuggets fought to the bitter end. Even after Jokic tomahawked Cam Payne and had his season ended early, the rest of the team dug deep and stayed within striking distance even as the superior Suns slowly closed the door shut.
For a majority of teams, getting swept would be a major step back regardless of the circumstances. While along the fringes there are certainly areas that Denver could and should look to improve upon this offseason, this outcome is far from a regression.
“I don’t think people understand us winning that first round series, just how impressive that was without our starting backcourt,” Malone said last night. It’s a testament to just how good Nikola Jokic is that with 30-year old rookie Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers coming in off the street, Denver went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and came out on top.
With Murray the Nuggets still would have taken Portland, but would he have made a difference against Phoenix? The Suns played a nearly perfect series and are peaking at the right time. One could make a real argument that the Suns still would have won - but there is absolutely no way it would have been in four games. Murray averaged 26.5 points in the playoffs last season; throwing him into the mix changes everything.
There is a real chance that with Murray the Nuggets could have not only defeated Phoenix but actually gone all the way to the NBA Finals. A rematch against either the Clippers or Utah Jazz in the conference finals would not have been impossible to win. But,we’ll never know. File this season into the archives alongside 2013’s 57 win team that suffered without Danilo Gallinari into the “What-if?” category.
What we do know is this: the Denver Nuggets will be back. This team has worked too hard and built too strong of a culture to let this season mar what still looks to be an incredible future.
The Nuggets got a taste of just how good they can be with this current roster construction in the nine games between the March 25 trade deadline when Aaron Gordon was acquired and the fateful night Murray tore his ACL. Denver went a league best 8-1 in that stretch, including two really impressive wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and the LA Clippers. Looking back, Michael Malone said last night he felt the Nuggets could “win it all” with Gordon following that win in Los Angeles. Just 11 days later, Murray went down.
It’s small sample size, but at this point it’s more than enough to hang on to. The Nuggets are a great team that isn’t going away anytime soon. They should be more motivated than ever.
Nikola Jokic, who even after winning the most prestigious individual award the league has to offer doesn’t get any respect from the officials or his NBA peers. More players tweeted in disbelief over his ejection than did congratulate him on winning MVP.
Jamal Murray, perhaps the most competitive player on the team, sitting on the sideline helpless as he watched the season go down the drain.
Michael Porter Jr., a kid with all the natural talent in the world who despite his improvements in a breakout sophomore season had his weaknesses targeted again and again in the postseason.
Will Barton, the fans’ scapegoat, who begged Michael Malone to let him start because he wanted to help this team win so bad despite just coming back from an awful hamstring injury that technically had him on a minutes restriction.
Aaron Gordon, “Mr. 50”, who came into a new role as the glue guy after years of being the guy in Orlando and does all the intangibles the right way.
Every single player on the Nuggets roster has a similar story. This team will forever be underdogs. That is why they will continue to prove everyone wrong.
In the long run, an earlier exit from this postseason might be beneficial. Denver will have more time to rest and heal up after a 72-game season and two playoff runs all within a 10-month span.
This season may have ended earlier than expected, but it was still a success. Next year will be, too.