DENVER — Back in April, the Denver Nuggets came as close as a team possibly can to making the NBA playoffs — only to fail to do so. It took losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final day of the regular season — and in overtime, no less — for Denver to see their hopes of making the postseason fall short by one game for a second straight year.
For the entire offseason, and throughout training camp, that memory — of falling one game short not once, but twice — has stuck with the Nuggets. It has haunted them.
And, as this season has gotten underway, it has served as a constant reminder of what this young nucleus has yet to accomplish.
It’s a feeling the Nuggets don’t want to experience again.
“This year, we are taking every game like it was the Minnesota game,” Jamal Murray said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We talked about it in training camp, but I think everyone has that feeling that if we lose one game now, it’s going to come back and haunt us at the end of the year.”
The way things are going here these days, the Nuggets won’t have that problem a third time — not even close.
After a 115-107 victory over the Boston Celtics on Monday night, a win powered by Murray’s 48 points, the Nuggets are now 9-1 this season. That matches their best start through 10 games in franchise history (9-1 in 1976-77, Denver’s first NBA season after the ABA merger), and the Nuggets sit just a half-game back of the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors for the NBA’s best record three weeks in. With wins over the Warriors and Celtics, they also have already landed signature wins against the preseason favorites to square off against one another in the NBA Finals.
So what has changed in Denver, and allowed the Nuggets to go from a frisky young team that is wildly entertaining, but only marginally successful, to become one that looks like — at least so far — a sure bet to finish the regular season with home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs?
The answer is simple: a commitment to defense — something that prior to this season had been virtually nonexistent.
“When you miss the playoffs by a game two years in a row, and your defense is in the bottom five and your offense is ranked in the top five, something’s got to give,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “You can’t be making the same mistake over and over.”
And, finally, the Nuggets aren’t. Denver currently sits third in defensive efficiency — trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks and the Celtics — after years of abysmal defensive play.
Despite having several potential trouble spots defensively — most notably center Nikola Jokic, who isn’t exactly Bill Russell in the paint — the Nuggets have turned up the effort and intensity at that end of the floor to a level they haven’t been at previously.
That’s how Denver has managed to get off to such a blistering start while currently having the 9th-ranked offense. One could’ve landed extremely long odds in Las Vegas before the season that, through 10 games, Denver’s defense would be significantly ahead of its offense.
Yet that’s precisely what has happened — and it’s why the Nuggets are flying to new heights.
“The buy-in, the commitment, the effort [is there],” Malone said. “So no, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised at all. Our guys are out there doing it, and they deserve all the credit. We haven’t come up with a grand master plan.
“We do what we do, we just do it harder, better and for longer stretches.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Nuggets also have singular offensive talents like Murray and Jokic to build around, either. Murray was utterly sensational Monday night, going toe-to-toe with Kyrie Irving and coming out ahead — a rare occurrence for any guard, but certainly for one in only his third NBA season.
Murray had it all going against the Celtics, finishing 19-for-30 overall, 5-for-11 from 3-point range and 5-for-5 from the foul line. It was the kind of dynamic performance that only a handful of players in the league are capable of pulling off on a regular basis — and a reminder that, for all of Denver’s defensive improvement, it will be their ability to produce individual moments of brilliance offensively that will truly decide just how high this team’s ceiling really is.
“Jamal is a gamer,” said Gary Harris, Murray’s opposite number in Denver’s starting backcourt. “He plays his best in big games, and he came ready to play.
“He’s the reason why we won tonight.”
It also was a good sign for Denver that the Nuggets beat one of the league’s elite teams with the player often tasked with being the reason the Nuggets win on a nightly basis — Jokic — having a rather pedestrian game by his standards. Of course, that Jokic had a pedestrian game by finishing with 8 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists is a sign of how truly gifted he is.
In Denver’s prior game, a 15-point win at home over the Utah Jazz, Jokic had 16 assists — the most any player has had in an NBA game this season. That performance came just a couple of weeks after Jokic had 35 points on a perfect 11-for-11 shooting performance against the Phoenix Suns — while also racking up 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
Nikola Jokic makes 100 percent of his field goals in triple-double of 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists against the Suns.
Jokic is tied with Los Angeles Lakers small forward LeBron James for seventh in the NBA with 7.7 assists per game. Not only is Jokic the best passing big man in the league today, he might be the best passing big ever — and he doesn’t even turn 24 until January.
All of this progress for the Nuggets is also largely without the contributions of small forward Will Barton (about two weeks into an estimated 5-6 week recovery from surgery to repair core and hip muscle injuries), backup point guard Isaiah Thomas (still out indefinitely after March hip surgery) and 2018 lottery rookie small forward Michael Porter Jr. (out indefinitely after offseason back surgery).
It’s still early, and the Nuggets have plenty left to prove. After all, they’ve learned the hard way just how much every single game matters the way the past two seasons have played out.
Prior iterations of these Nuggets, though, would’ve simply been happy to be playing like this, and wouldn’t have been focused on the bigger picture. The disappointments of the past two seasons, though, have left Denver determined to make sure that this season ends differently.
“I forget who, but someone asked me this morning if we were trying to prove something [against Boston],” Murray said. “We’ve done some great stuff [so far], but we haven’t accomplished nothing.
“We just have to keep taking it one game at a time like we have been, and we’ll get the job done.”
If the first 10 games of this season are any indication, the Nuggets will prove Murray right — and, in doing so, ensure that the same fate that befell them the past two seasons won’t happen again.