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Have We Seen This Nuggets Movie Before?

Denver is once again lurking near the top of the West. Is there reason to believe Nikola Jokic and Co. can take the next step this postseason? Or do we already know how this script ends?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nuggets made it clear they were going all in on the power of consistency and continuity when they brought back the players who logged 92 percent of the team’s minutes last season. What we didn’t realize, though, was just how committed they were to the bit: On March 4, 2019, the Nuggets were 42-21, sitting in second place in the West. And on March 4, 2020, the Nuggets are … 41-20, sitting in third place in the West.

In terms of overall year-over-year performance, the Nuggets have held as steady and as strong as any team in the league, save for Milwaukee—another team that turned in an excellent 2018-19 regular season, only to run aground in the playoffs. But while Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have been even better than last year’s model in virtually every facet of the game, Denver has essentially provided more of the same.

To be fair: There are way worse things than “more of the same” when you’re winning 67 percent of your games. But after watching so many other title hopefuls reimagine themselves over the past year and reload for a postseason push, the Nuggets’ preference for sticking to the script might lead you to wonder whether you’ve already seen this movie before.

The Nuggets entered last weekend with a pair of marquee matchups on the schedule, affording them the chance to kick their stretch run into high gear. But on Friday, Denver got blown off the court at Staples Center, stumbling through an embarrassing loss to a Clippers team rebounding from a three-game losing streak (they’re just fine, thank you). After the dismal showing, in which the Nuggets never led and ultimately lost by a season-high 29 points, a “very disappointed” coach Mike Malone termed his team’s effort “soft ... from beginning to end.”

That sort of public bombast isn’t exactly rare from Malone; he’s shown a willingness to lob the occasional grenade since his days in Sacramento, particularly when he feels his team is falling short on the defensive end. Still, turning in a performance that elicits such a frank rebuke didn’t exactly instill a ton of confidence in the Nuggets—especially when it comes against the team that had been directly beneath them in the Western Conference standings.

Several Nuggets players, including veteran swingman Will Barton and reserve point guard Monte Morris, echoed Malone’s assessment, insisting the ass-kicking in L.A. was a wake-up call for a team that couldn’t afford to go through the motions. But All-Star center Nikola Jokic—perhaps in keeping with the overarching vibe of a “dude [who] plays every minute as if he’s wearing flip-flops yet is a borderline MVP,” as SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal once perfectly described him—presented a glass-half-full take.

“We’ve had a lot of bad losses,” Jokic said, according to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. “Maybe this is just, as you guys say, maybe a little bit more important. But it’s still not the end of the world. We’ve had a lot of losses against teams that have a worse record than us. We’ve responded well.”

So Denver went out on Sunday against the Raptors—not only one of the NBA’s best stories this season, but one of its best teams, period—and responded well. Two days after being whipped from pillar to post by the Clippers, Denver paid that treatment forward to the East’s no. 2 seed, leading from opening tip to final buzzer of a 15-point win. Toronto was short-handed and just plain short, missing centers Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and Jokic pulverized the small-ball Raps to the tune of 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 18 rebounds, and 11 assists.

To hear Malone tell it, while his players all felt disappointed by their showing against the Clippers, “There was no panic”—just an awareness that Denver needed to get back to doing what it does best, and all the team really needed was to resume being who it was.

Which, of course, is the million-dollar question: Who are the Nuggets, really? The second-best team in the West, and a legitimate threat to make the Finals for the first time since the ABA? Or a regular-season rabbit built to rack up wins from October through April, but lacking the top-flight talent necessary to go blow-for-blow with the big boys come May and June? If that question sounds familiar ... well, that’s probably because you remember us asking it this time last year, too.

There are reasons to believe this year is different. Denver’s been great in close games, going 20-9 in contests in which the score’s within three points in the final five minutes. The Nuggets have fared well against good opposition, too—14-10 against teams with .500 or better records, 13-7 against top-10 offenses, 12-7 against top-10 defenses. (The best of the bunch: A 12-point win over the Bucks in Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back.) They’ve also got the grit and firepower to climb out of holes, owning one of the best records in the league after being down by at least 10 points.

Then there’s Jokic, who notably slumbered through the first six or so weeks of the season, but has played himself back into All-Star shape. Since early December, he’s been one of the league’s most potent sources of offense, and a fringe MVP candidate, averaging 23.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.1 assists in 33.1 minutes per game, shooting a blistering 56 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point land. And whatever concerns you might have about Denver’s postseason viability, Jokic proved he was ready for the bright lights during his sensational playoff debut last spring, when he averaged 25.1 points on a .596 true shooting percentage to go with 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists in 39.8 minutes per game to carry the Nuggets to the verge of the Western Conference finals. The only other players to put up 25-10-5 in a postseason on that kind of shooting efficiency are Larry Bird and young Charles Barkley. Decent company.

There’s a reason Jokic leads the league in touches; few players in the world are as adept at demanding double-teams and defenders’ eyes, then leveraging that extra attention to spray the ball all over the court or to go get his own shot anyway. But while Jokic can be an offense unto himself, he and the Nuggets are at their best when the rest of the roster is smoothly and productively orbiting him.

Maxed-out point guard Jamal Murray’s been holding up his end of the bargain since returning from a left ankle sprain, averaging an efficient 22.5 points and 5.4 assists per game over his past 11 outings. Barton, Jerami Grant (who’s been great in an elevated role filling in for Paul Millsap), and defense-first wing Torrey Craig have found their strokes, too, while Morris continues to be one of the league’s most responsible offensive stewards, posting an eye-popping 5.21-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season.

Denver’s chances of spoiling an L.A. vs. L.A. showdown in the West finals many have been predicting since July could come down to how effectively Malone can coax contributions out of two of his most lopsided perimeter pieces. Gary Harris remains an excellent defender, and likely Malone’s first line of defense against the ace guards Denver could face in the postseason. But while Harris was once tabbed as one of the best young two-way shooting guards in the NBA, he has spent much of the past two seasons battling injuries and a disappearing offensive touch. He’s shooting a career-worst 40.7 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent from 3-point range, and has seen his usage rate plummet as his woes worsen.

It’s become nearly impossible for one-way players to survive in the NBA playoffs. Harris has shown signs of life lately, shooting 10-for-22 from deep since the trade deadline. But if the thaw doesn’t last, how long will Malone be able to roll with Harris in a series against what’s likely to be a damn good opponent? For his part, the coach continues to exude confidence: “We will not be the best team that we can be if we don’t find a way to get Gary going. I think he is well on his way to getting back to the player that we all know he is capable of being … and I have no doubt that he can get back to that. That’s how much I believe in him.”

While Harris has spent five years building equity with Malone, rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. has all of 45 NBA games and 638 professional minutes on his résumé. His cover letter includes stuff like this, the kind of youthful exuberance, athleticism, and innate scoring touch that you could imagine swinging a few important sequences in the postseason:

The sticking point for Malone, though, is that it also includes stuff like this, which could also swing a few important playoff moments, and not in the way Denver would like:

Malone gave Porter an extended look after Christmas, and the 21-year-old responded by averaging 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per game through the end of January, shooting a sparkling 54.1 percent from the floor and 47.5 percent from 3-point land. After a six-game absence due to a right ankle injury, though, Porter has seen his opportunities dwindle, playing fewer than 10 minutes in three of his past six games. During the Clippers blowout, Malone kept the rookie on the bench in the second half, opting for the more defensively sound but more offensively limited Craig, who he said “gave us the best chance to try to get back in the game.”

From his earliest days as an assistant, Malone has preached defense above all else; if he doesn’t believe a player will be able to follow and execute the game plan, then that player won’t play. Given some of the defenses Denver might have to face, though—and, for that matter, some of the dynamic wing scorers who are just too big for Craig, Harris, and Barton, and too fast for the 35-year-old Millsap—it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the Nuggets might benefit from the infusion of a 6-foot-10 bucket-getter with deep range and the size and quickness to at least make an opposing scorer work for his space. When that moment comes, will Malone stick to his defense-first vets? Or will he have the temerity to live with the kid coloring outside the lines a bit, on the off chance that he produces something beautiful?

It’s a big question, one of many facing Denver heading into the final quarter of the season. Only 2.5 games separate the Nuggets, Clippers, and Rockets; only three games separate Houston from Utah, Oklahoma City, and Dallas. Tiebreakers could wind up mattering a great deal, and many of Denver’s are still up in the air—they’re 1-1 against the Clippers with one more game to come, 2-0 against the Jazz with two more on the way, 1-1 against the Thunder with two to go, and 1-1 against the Mavs with two more to come. That’s a lot of games against good teams for the Nuggets, who have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the West, according to Tankathon, and who are about to play nine of their next 11 games on the road. (Unforced errors like Tuesday’s 16-point home loss to the league-worst Warriors—the latest in a series of bad losses to bad teams for Denver—don’t help.)

That closing slate helps explain why both Basketball-Reference.com and Inpredictable project Denver as more likely to finish in the no. 3 or 4 spot in the conference than with the second seed, which in turn helps explain why multiple systems are bearish on the Nuggets’ chances of coming out of the West. It’s about more than just the schedule, though; it’s about the perception that the Lakers, Clippers, and Rockets just have more superstar talent than Denver, and that when it gets to this time of year, that’s what matters most. The Nuggets disagree.

“You don’t have to be the most talented team to beat somebody,” Murray told Michael Lee of The Athletic earlier this season. “The way we play, we play to win. We play for each other. And, when we’re winning, everybody looks good.”

If the Nuggets can manage to look good all the way into June, they’ll change the way the basketball-watching world views not only them, but the balance of power in the West—and maybe even the best way to build a team in a league now perpetually moving at breakneck speed. (Would we see them as the first team without a bona fide superstar to win a title since the 2004 Pistons? Or would a title certify Jokic as a no-doubt member of the elite, a full-fledged top-five player from now on?) Pull that off, and Denver won’t just produce “more of the same” anymore. It’ll just be ... more.