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Mile Highs and Lows: A Recap of the Denver Nuggets in June

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It was an earlier exit than Nuggets fans were hoping for, but the way the Nuggets fought through adversity was incredible to watch

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-21 season is over for the Denver Nuggets, and while the team did not go nearly as far as fans hoped they would, there is too much to be excited about for the future of the team to get too bummed out. It wasn’t as though the team had all their pieces and just fell short to superior competition. Instead, in a really weird season to begin with due to the shortened offseason and the condensed schedule, the Nuggets were bit by an injury bug that left them without three of their top guards to begin the playoffs. Despite having to adjust to having new players in the rotation and having to play without their second best player and arguably the heart of the team, the Nuggets beat the odds by winning a playoff series. Ultimately, they would go on to lose to the Phoenix Suns in the second round in a sweep, but the fact that the team should (hopefully) be much healthier for a playoff run next season is enough to ease a little bit of the pain. Before we look forward to the next season, let’s take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the last month.

Series record against the Portland Trail Blazers: Denver Nuggets (4), Trail Blazers (2)

Series record against the Phoenix Suns: Phoenix Suns (4), Denver Nuggets (0)

Game of the Month: Denver Nuggets (147) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (140)

In Game 5 of the first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Nuggets fans that were at Ball Arena certainly got their money worth. With about 5 seconds left on the clock and the Nuggets up 3 in regulation, Damian Lillard hit a three to tie the game. After the Nuggets couldn’t convert on the other end, the game was sent to overtime. What followed was an absolute iconic performance by Damian Lillard. Every time the Nuggets tried to pull away, Lillard would hit an unbelievable three to keep the game close. However, when the Nuggets were up 8 with only a little over a minute left in the first overtime, it sure seemed like the Nuggets were on their way to a 3-2 series lead. While they did end up winning the game to take the series lead, it would require another overtime to finally get the job done, as Lillard hit three more incredible threes after that point to die the game and force a double overtime. Lillard continued to dominate and was simply unstoppable, but thanks to a couple of crucial mistakes by the Blazers, including a missed dunk by Robert Covington and a turnover by C.J. McCollum, the Nuggets were finally able to end the game and get the win.

This definitely felt like a game that would decide the series, and that proved to be true as the Nuggets went on to win game 6 and the series. Lillard’s performance in this game will definitely go down as one of the best individual performances by a player in the playoffs, as Lillard finished 55 points on 17/24 shooting, 12/17 from three. The Nuggets were lead by Jokic, who scored 38 points and had 11 rebounds and 9 assists.

Highlight of the Month:

A little more than a minute into their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, Jokic made a jaw-dropping move. After catching the ball at the free-throw line, Jokic found himself open next to the basket. However, he was a tad bit too off balance in order to throw the shot up right then and there. Instead, he opted to throw the ball off the backboard to himself before elegantly laying it in. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, things were all down hill from there in the series, but this play was certainly fun to watch.

Player of the month: Nikola Jokic

In June, Nikola Jokic was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the 2020-21 season, and he definitely earned it. He lead the Nuggets in points, rebounds, and assists for the season, and he carried his team to the second round of the playoffs despite a myriad of injuries that would have probably sunk a lot of teams. In the playoffs, Jokic averaged 29.8 points, 5.0 assists, and 11.6 rebounds, and it is important to remember that he played in all 72 games in a season with a condensed schedule, after the Nuggets ended their season on September 26th last year. That, combined with the fact that Jokic had to carry much more of the offensive load due to Jamal Murray’s injury, makes his performances even more impressive. In Games 5 and 6 of the series against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, Jokic put up the following stat lines: 38 points, 9 assists, and 11 rebounds, and 36 points, 6 assists and 8 rebounds. Simply put, he was just dominating. Although his points per game average dipped a little bit in the series against the Phoenix Suns (33 ppg to 25 ppg), his productivity overall did not waiver in the slightest. In game 3, for example, Jokic had a whopping triple double of 32 points, 10 assists and 20 rebounds. Safe to say, the MVP carried an injury-ridden team as far as he could and the season that he had will undoubtedly go down as one of the best of any Nugget.

Story of the Month: The Denver Nuggets wrap up the season after disappointing second round series against the Phoenix Suns

If you had asked a Nuggets fan in early April what the expectation was for the team heading into the playoffs, most probably would have said a deep run into the playoffs and a possible trip to the NBA finals. After all, when the team landed Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, it truly seemed as though all of the pieces were in place. They had the MVP of the league in Nikola Jokic, an extremely electric offensive talent and perfect sidekick in Jamal Murray, a very efficient and talented shooter in Michael Porter Jr., and now a versatile and competent defender that can hold his own against the elite forwards in the league. One by one, though, the pieces of the puzzle started to fall away until, eventually, the team was hardly recognizable in the playoffs due to the injuries to P.J. Dozier, Will Barton, and Murray.

The Nuggets were able to beat all odds by winning their first-round series against a very offensively gifted team in the Blazers. Many would have thought it would be completely acceptable if the Nuggets fought hard but came up short against that team. The Nuggets did not shy away from the challenge, however, and amazingly won the series in six games despite several players (Austin Rivers, Shaquille Harrison, Markus Howard) being in the rotation that were not up until the playoffs. Winning this series is both a testament to the character of the team and to Jokic as the leader of the team. Sure, the Nuggets got swept in the second round, but their defeat was against a team that has been playing at an elite level all season and is now poised to compete for a championship in the finals. All and all, I think most fans would agree that it was a valiant effort by Jokic and the squad, and one that should definitely not be forgotten.

Surprise of the month: Nikola Jokic ejected in the last game of the season

With just under four minutes left in the third quarter in Game 4 of an elimination game against the Suns, the MVP of the league was ejected in what many considered an utterly surprising decision by the referees. Jokic, frustrated at another no-call on the offensive end, took a swing at the ball that was in the hands of Cam Payne. Unfortunately, in the process of getting the ball, Jokic grazed the face of Payne, and Payne went down in a heap on the court. While it was certainly a hard foul, and was definitely worthy of a flagrant 1, not many expect that the refs would eject a team’s best player and the MVP of the league in a game that his team must win in order to stay alive. Of course, the Nuggets ended up losing the game and the series. While the result of the series most likely was not decided by that play, the result of the game very well could have been. What hurts even worse, however, is having to see Jokic’s incredible season end in that way.

Grade for the month: B-

What’s new on Denver Stiffs:

Want to know how we evaluated all of the players for the 2020-21 season? Head on over to this stream that’s been continuously updated since the end of the season.

We learned a lot about the Denver Nuggets’ identity this season, especially in their postseason run. In this edition of “Film Friday,” Gage Bridgford highlights the most important takeaways from the past season.

Following the draft lottery last week, three Stiffs participated in a roundtable in which they take turns giving their opinions on what the Nuggets should do in the 2021 NBA draft.

In this roundtable, the Stiffs react to the season after their defeat in the second round of the playoffs.

This excellent editorial penned by Ryan Blackburn takes us back to a much darker time in the Nuggets organization, and explores the ways in which the franchise has made the steady climb to being a legitimate title contender. Ryan also highlights some of the questions surrounding the roster that needs to be addressed prior to next season.

Following the sweep of the Nuggets by the Suns, Evan Fiala wrote this article in which he makes the argument that one should not view the sweep as a setback, but instead should look forward to the future of the team.

Listen to this edition of the Chick n’ Nuggets podcast in which Jena Garcia and Reilly Biller reminisce on the ups and downs of the past season.

Tommy Knowlton dished out some awards following the conclusion of the season. Who earned the Distinguishable Service award? What about the Medal of Honor? Click here to find out.

Following the team’s series victory against the Portland Trail Blazers, Ryan Blackburn highlights just what made the accomplishment so impressive.