In the most difficult press conference of the season, addressing the media following a Game 7 loss at home, Michael Malone didn’t take long to use the words that have come to define the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets. When asked what he’ll remember about this team, he turned to a phrase that debuted in the first week of training camp, a message that he hoped would permeate his locker room and seep into the minds of his players.

“What I will remember is how truly selfless they were,” Malone answered. “A lot of people talk about being selfless, and it’s a fancy word up on the wall—looks cool. For us, it was something we actually tried to live…this group really did play for each other, not just with each other.” 

Fresh off a loss in one of the biggest games in the team’s history, Nuggets fans may not have much use for the cliches that line the arsenal of an old school coach like Malone. But after 82 regular season games and 14 thrilling games in the playoffs, an honest reflection reveals that those words held weight. 

Nikola Jokic emerged as an MVP candidate this season, a transcendent player capable of elevating an entire organization. But he can’t be the sole explanation for a season like the one that just ended. The young Nuggets endured brutal injuries, their guards struggled to hit open shots, and their rotation featured two players that spent parts of last season in the G-League. And yet they won 54 games, they cracked the top third of the league in defensive rating, and they gave Nuggets fans their first series win in a decade.

What we saw from this team was greater than the sum of their parts. What we saw was a team that cared about each other, that played hard together, and got the very best out of one another. The Nuggets played for each other, and it yielded positive results.

But they came up short.

“It’s a tough one,” Paul Millsap said after the game when asked to reflect on the loss. “We envisioned ourselves going to the next round, and that could have been our fault–not staying in the present moment, not staying here today. 

We have a lot of guys who are going to learn. They’ll look back on this game, look back on this film, and see where we went wrong and what we can do to get better, and next time we’ll be better.”

The Nuggets indeed held higher aspirations than a second round appearance. It was about more than exceeding expectations for this group. It was about more than incremental improvement. They wanted to win a championship. 

But they came up short, and that’s nothing new in Denver.

The optimistic Nuggets fan will buy what Millsap is selling—that this is only the beginning for the Nuggets and only another rung on the latter. Those on the other end of the spectrum are sick of all the talk of progress and potential. They’re sick of losing.

There are no guarantees in sports. For all that the Nuggets accomplished this season and all the positive momentum they’ve gathered, they would not be the first team whose bright future was never realized should they fail to improve on this run. 

The Process has stalled in Philadelphia. Timberwolves fans find themselves in a frozen hell yet again. Even the Celtics, primed to rule the post-LeBron East for years, fell short of the Conference Finals—their future suddenly uncertain.

Neither this team nor its fans can cling to the future forever. The bar is set high now, and the era of excuses has come and gone. That was the sweet spot of fandom, and now the real pressure will set in. The group that played for each other won 54 games, and they won our hearts, but they did not win Game 7. They were not good enough. 

It’s hard to know what transformation awaits this team. Most of the core will return, but a crucial decision regarding Paul Millsap will take priority, and dictate any subsequent moves this offseason. 

There should be a long list of talented players on the free agency menu this summer, but the real needle movers are unlikely to sign here. With or without Millsap, it will be up to this young core to improve. 

Progression is of course not linear. But this team appears to be ahead of schedule, with two series and two Game 7’s under their belts now. Improvement is on the table for this team. Development is the expectation, with or without that guarantee. 

The Nuggets have passed many tests in the Malone era, but now they face their most difficult one yet. The infamous ‘Game 82’ could have broken the Nuggets last summer, but they did what good teams do. They used it as fuel for the fire that burned inside them all season, and they forged a different outcome. Now they must do what all great teams have done. They must use the pain of coming up short as fuel for a real run at the title.

“This will stay with us,” Malone concluded. “Game 82 in Minnesota—lose in overtime, chance to go to the playoffs—that was a rallying cry and a motivating loss. All summer long, mini camps, summer league, training camp, preseason, regular season, first round, second round. It was a motivating force. Tonight’s loss is going to motivate us. We have now tasted what it’s like to win the in the playoffs, we have tasted now how close we were to the Western Conference Finals. So we’ll use that to come back a better team, and I look forward to that challenge.”

Those who warn us not to assume that this team will be back are not without a point. We do not have that guarantee. But neither are the optimists. Should the Nuggets ever evolve into a genuine contender, we’ll look back on these moments as growing pains, necessary steps in a grueling and arduous process. 

The Nuggets that played for each other must now grow together. This young core must improve together. Denver will start the grind all over again, and they can’t skip steps. But this team knows what’s ahead of them now. They know what it’s like to grind, sweat, and cry together—for each other. They will embrace this new challenge head-on. 

“Throughout the season you saw guys get better and improve, and you can bet that’s going to happen again this time,” Millsap said during his exit interview on Monday. 

“We’ll be ready.”