For the fourth consecutive season, the Denver Nuggets did enough during the regular season to earn themselves an appearance in the NBA Playoffs. With that effort, they became one of just two Western Conference teams to have made the postseason in each of the last four years.
Head coach Michael Malone pointed to this fact a number of times throughout the year to promote the franchise's recent success. However, the Nuggets three-year streak of advancing past the first round -- another league-leading figure -- came to an end with a 4-1 series loss to the Golden State Warriors.
In a results-oriented industry, it might be easy to chalk up the Nuggets' 2021-22 season as a worse-than-expected outcome. Despite Nikola Jokić's utter dominance -- and a potential back-to-back MVP award win -- Denver was sent home early, left to re-evaluate ahead of the next campaign.
But those within the organization have chosen to take a different approach. Jamal Murray missed the entirety of the season, while Michael Porter Jr. and PJ Dozier played just 27 combined games before suffering injuries.
This year, the focus was not on results, but rather a successful process that saw Jokić lift his teammates to 48 wins. One that allowed rookie Bones Hyland to become an immediate positive contributor and a core piece for the future, while Will Barton made Nuggets history with prolific three-point shooting.
There is no doubt that a championship would have been the ideal outcome in 2022. But in a season filled with injuries and unexpected contributors, keeping a postseason streak alive serves as a testament to the fight within the Nuggets locker room.
Slow Out Of The Gates
Nearly all 30 franchises dealt with their fair share of peaks and valleys throughout the course of the season. For the Nuggets, one of their lowest valleys came early in the year, as injuries mounted and lineups became fluid from game to game.
After winning nine of their first 13 games, Denver went on a six-game losing streak, including three losses at Ball Arena. In a particularly brutal stretch of schedule -- Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, and Milwaukee Bucks -- the Nuggets were unable to capitalize and find ways to win.
At 9-10, with Porter Jr. and Dozier already lost for the season, the team hovered .500 through December and into 2022, struggling to find any sort of rhythm.
Almost halfway through the season -- with 36 games played -- the Nuggets sat at an 18-18 record. They had some disappointing losses, including the lottery-bound Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder. On January 5th, it appeared Denver might be bound for the Play-In Tournament, as they sat in eighth place of the Western Conference with some difficult teams ahead of them.
But as they have shown numerous times during the Malone-Jokić era of Nuggets basketball, no one had plans to give up. Some influential wins against the Warriors and Miami Heat provided a blueprint for what the team could be moving forward.
Jokić showed early signs of another potentially remarkable season, averaging 24.2 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 7.0 assists on his typical efficient shooting. It was just a matter of putting the pieces together after having time to rebound from the early injuries.
A Strong Turnaround
On Jan. 5, the Nuggets suffered a 115-109 loss to the Utah Jazz to drop them to .500 for the 11th time in 36 games. Even amid a lack of availability, this wasn't seen as acceptable for an organization coming off of their third straight top-three finish in the Western Conference standings.
Then came a five-game stretch against a grouping of beatable opponents. It started with Jokić amassing 33 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists in a 10-point win against the Sacramento Kings. This was followed by an outstanding, 22-point performance from Austin Rivers against the Thunder.
After a down-to-the-wire loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Nuggets truly decided that enough is enough. Their next two outings saw them defeat the Portland Trail Blazers and L.A. Lakers by a combined 69 points with six and seven players scoring in double figures, respectively.
When they faced the Clippers again just four nights later, Jokić firmly asserted himself back into the MVP race with a massive 49-point, 14-rebound, and 10-assist triple double in a win. This was followed by a five-game winning streak, including four wins on the road against teams like the Bucks and Brooklyn Nets.
By the time the Nuggets had a chance to look at the standings again, they had brought themselves to No. 5 in the Western Conference to close out the month of January. Having won 10 of their last 13 games, Denver held a 28-21 record as the All-Star Break neared.
The All-Star Break came after one of the best nights of the entire regular season for the Nuggets. On Feb. 16, Denver headed got San Francisco to face the Warriors, who they had already beaten once this season.
While Jokić securing a stat line of 35 points, 17 rebounds, and eight assists was certainly a highlight, this game will always be remembered for the Monte Morris game-winning three-pointer after trailing by seven points with just over one minute to go in the contest.
Morris' clutch moment not only solidified a big win against a dangerous opponent, but it also gave them momentum heading into the break, as it was their third consecutive victory to give them a 33-25 record with a week off providing a much-needed rest.
Post All-Star Momentum
The Nuggets kept things rolling in a major way when games resumed in late February. They won seven of their first eight outings by an average of 13 points per night. This included a 32-point win against the Trail Blazers in which Jokić had just eight points, signaling a true team effort.
At 40-26, Denver looked to have control of their destiny for the remainder of the season. Although the Minnesota Timberwolves were hot on their trail hoping to avoid the Play-In Tournament, the Nuggets had built up plenty of experience battling against adversity.
It also helped matters that Jokić went on an MVP-level tear in his final 18 games. From a March 6th win against the New Orleans Pelicans to their final win of the regular season against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Serbian superstar averaged 32.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.8 steals. and 1.3 blocks per night on 62.5% from the field.
The Nuggets went 11-7 in this stretch and secured their place in the NBA Playoffs, where they would be matched up with the Warriors in the first round.
After a year of mounting obstacles, the Nuggets found themselves representing the Western Conference as one of eight teams to make it to the postseason. While the team had no interest in making excuses or giving themselves passes, just an appearance in these Playoffs could have been viewed as a victory.
But Denver was not satisfied with just a ticket to the dance. They put their focus and energy towards a difficult opponent in the Warriors. For the first time all season, Golden State was at full strength and were ready to unleash a new version of the small-ball lineup that helped them win three championships in five seasons.
That lineup -- consisting of Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green -- certainly turned on the pressure. After blowouts in Games 1 and 2, though, the Nuggets found their fight.
They worked tirelessly over the next three games to try and extend the series. Jokić and Aaron Gordon gained a rhythm and gave Denver a legitimate chance. But last-minute losses in Games 3 and 5 -- and a win in Game 4 -- ultimately sent the Nuggets home after a hard-fought five-game series.
In the aftermath, Malone, President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, and GM Calvin Booth expressed pride in their team for fighting the way they did. But now, it's back to the drawing board for next season, where the Nuggets should enter with legitimate championship aspirations.
With Murray and Porter Jr. out for the majority of the season, several Nuggets players stepped up and became key contributors. Of course, this all started with Jokić, who finished the season with 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game, putting together a potential MVP campaign.
Jokić also made NBA history by becoming the first player to score 2,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds, and dish 500 assists in a single season.
Gordon filled it not only as a secondary scoring option, but as one of the team's primary defensive stoppers on the perimeter. His final averages were 15.0 points and 5.9 rebounds on 52.0% from the field and 33.5% from three.
Barton became the Nuggets all-time leader in career three-pointers made, scoring 14.7 points per game on 36.5% from beyond the arc. Morris had a strong showing as well, finishing the year with 12.6 points a night on 39.5% shooting from three.
Hyland was one of the major bright spots for Denver, earning his way into the rotation midway through the season, ultimately averaging 10.1 points on 36.6% from three-point range.