Denver Nuggets hold their heads up high after a heartbreaking Game 7 vs. Portland Trail Blazers

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

When the final whistle was called and the Western Conference semifinals were decided, there was an understandable deflated vibe at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets led by as many as 17 points but couldn’t hold on in a heartbreaking 100-96 defeat in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday. After the result, there was a somber mood in the locker room, but there was also another emotion that was prevalent: Quiet confidence.

“For us, tonight is the end of the season, but I’m not going to allow this Game 7 loss to take away from a magical year,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. “It doesn’t feel that way right now, but when I reflect and when our players reflect on what we were able to accomplish – hell of a year. I couldn’t ask for anything more from our guys.”

And what a year it was.

The Nuggets finished the regular season with 54 wins, good for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. It was their first playoff appearance in six year and Denver didn’t disappoint. Their 14-game run introduced America into the phenom that is Nikola Jokić. It showcased the growing young talents the team has in Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley and Monte Morris among others. It also saw Paul Millsap produce arguably the finest postseason performances of his 13-year career. As disappointing as Sunday was, there is a prevailing sense that this young team (the eighth-youngest in NBA playoff history) will take this postseason experience and grow from it.

“The future is so bright, you heard me say it all postseason. I love the moment. I love where we’re at, but more importantly, I love where we’re going and who we’re going there with,” Malone said.

Jokić shared his coach’s thoughts.

“When we started this season and training camp, we said let’s make the playoffs and then we were playing really good and we were not in the last spot the last couple of weeks and we said let’s do something bigger,” he said. “We had homecourt advantage. We beat San Antonio in seven games, it was a really tough series against Portland today.

“It’s improvement for us. This is our first time being here and hopefully next year we’re going to be better.”

Millsap has been on several playoff teams in his 13-year career and he was impressed with how quickly his younger teammates were able to learn on the fly in the playoffs and adjust.

“It’s an unbelievable stretch, amazing run from guys who haven’t been there before,” Millsap. “They learned fast, they picked up on what the playoffs were about early, and as a veteran in this locker room, I’m so proud of all the younger guys in here for the challenges that they went through and they fought through. They learned so quickly to get to this point. I’m proud of everybody in this locker room.”

Jokić was one of the players who really showed growth in all aspects of his game. He almost averaged a triple-double in the playoffs, going for 24.8 points, 13 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game while shooting 51.5 percent. After the game, Jokić tried to shoulder the blame for the Nuggets losing Game 7.

"They look at me as a leader," he said. "They look at me as their best player and yeah, I missed that one free throw at the end. I missed a free throw in the Portland game that lead to 4 overtime and I feel responsible just because I missed a lot of shots. I was supposed to make some of those."

Although Jokić isn’t the reason why the Nuggets lost, it was a display of his growth as a leader. He doesn’t shy away from the responsibility of being a franchise player, he embraces it. This is probably what the Nuggets envisioned when they signed him to his multi-year extension last summer.

“I got Nikola Jokić in there taking blame for the loss. It’s not his fault, this is a group effort,” Malone said. “I think the cumulative effect of 14 playoff games and us asking him to do as much as we asked him to do finally took its toll on him tonight. This group really did play for each other, not just with each other.”

Murray was another player who showed significant improvement throughout the playoffs. Although he struggled in Game 7, the 22-year-old went toe-to-toe with Portland’s superstar in Damian Lillard. Murray averaged 24.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists in the Western Conference semifinals, an impressive uptick from his season averages of 18.2 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds. The Canadian point guard has shown improvement each season and he now enters the summer with big expectations after showing his potential in the postseason.

“Jamal [Murray] will be a huge part of [the Nuggets] future,” Malone said. “Going into the offseason, having a game like he had, going 4-of-18 from the field, that’s going to be a great motivation tool for him.”

The Nuggets entered the 2018-19 season with some hopes of being a playoff team. They wrapped up their 14-game run showing why they can be one of the league’s perennial contenders. The league is certainly taking notice.

“The Denver Nuggets had an outstanding season, no one saw that coming,” Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said after the game. “With what they did in the regular season, winning close games, winning the division, [Nikola] Jokić is an amazing player, they’re a young team, they’re going to have a lot of success moving forward.”


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