This is it, ladies and gentlemen: the final game of the season. The Denver Nuggets are going to finish with at least a half-dozen more wins than last year, despite winding up third in the league in winshares-lost to injury. The Nuggets have the 9th seed locked up – but unfortunately the playoffs only go to 8. It’s strange to have a decent growth season that can feel like such a disappointment in some areas, but that’s the life with a young team. Several of these Nuggets may not be in Denver next year, so enjoy one last game from this transitional version, even if some of them sit out tonight’s contest and leave it in the hands of the young Nuggets.

The most recent team to shove a dagger into Denver’s playoff hopes is on hand tonight in the Oklahoma City Thunder. There’s no way to know who will start, or even who will play for them as they get ready for the playoffs. Russell Westbrook already did his work when he broke Oscar Robertson’s mark for triple-doubles in a season and ended the flickering flame of Denver’s playoff dreams. Denver is locked into the 13th spot in the draft (pending any lottery shenanigans) so a win or a loss does nothing for their draft status. Just let the energy and enthusiasm of the kids remind you how good the future can be, even if today tastes a little ashy.

The Basics:

Who: Denver Nuggets (39-42) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (47-34)

Where: Thunderdome, Oklahoma City, OK

When: 6:00 PM MST

How to watch: Altitude

Rival Blog: Welcome to Loud City

Lineups: Jets vs. Sharks

Injury Report: Jameer Nelson – out (calf), Danilo Gallinari – out (rest), Will Barton – questionable (foot), Kenneth Faried – questionable (back), Emmanuel Mudiay – questionable (ankle), all of the Thunder (who knows – rest and Reasons)

Three Thoughts

All the close losses this year hurt more at the finish line.

Denver blew a lot of close games, and had at least three losses that the league’s last-two-minutes reports stated were errors in referee judgment. They also couldn’t find enough defense to shut teams down when it mattered, and those little errors piled up to end this season at 82 games instead of getting a short series against the Warriors.

The Nuggets have gone 14-10 since February 24th, but 7 of those losses were to playoff teams (thanks for 3 of em, Houston) and 2 more were to the Hornets, who were playoff hopefuls into April. Early in the season the Nuggets were blowing games to terrible teams and playing down to their opponents. Over the closing stretch that problem was mostly solved, but Denver could not win enough games that they were underdogs in. They could not solve the stars and both Harden and Westbrook slammed the door shut on this season. Tonight can’t be payback, because one team is playoff-bound and one isn’t, but the pain from missing the playoffs this year has to be a motivating factor for next year. Real payback will have to wait.

Player development continues apace.

Jokic’s defense regressed as he logged more minutes in the lineup (and with most of those as a focal point of the second-best offensive attack in the league). That said, he posted a top-30 Winshares season in Nuggets history and Denver’s highest WS/48 mark of all time. That’s not bad for a sophomore season. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are both improving their games, with Harris working his way into some top-5 shooting guard arguments, and they’ve played well together. Juancho is a far better shooter than he was credited as coming out of Europe, and Muday’s play next to Jokic brings the hope that this summer can be a growth spurt and not a farewell in Denver. The entire youth brigade is full of promise.

Tonight is going to be a celebration of the future, just as last night’s scrimmage against the Mavericks was. If Denver is doing one thing right, it’s building for the future and having so many good pieces developing on the roster. Hell, Malik Beasley just cracked 100 minutes on the season and he absolutely looked like he belongs on an NBA court getting rotation minutes. What Denver does with all these pieces and how they shuffle the roster to add more defenders while giving these kids minutes are different problems for a later date. They might be tired after last night’s effort, but they want to finish strong too. For tonight, just enjoy their playing time.

Enjoy the last game!

We won’t get another real Nuggets game until October. Kick back and enjoy this one, even as bittersweet as it will be.