MINNEAPOLIS – In the end, confetti floated down from the Target Center rafters – the most ominous of signs. The Nuggets did their best to dodge it on the way out, but its meaning was inescapable. The season was over. Music blared for the home fans, who lingered after the Timberwolves outlasted the Nuggets 112-106 in overtime on Wednesday night.
The Nuggets had to live with the result. They had their best season in five years, going 46-36 to improve their record from a year ago by six games, and winning six straight games down the stretch to set up the winner take all contest in Minneapolis. But the Western Conference is unforgiving. In any of the last three seasons 46 wins would have been good enough to advance to the playoffs. But not in this one, where 10 teams jockeyed for playoff spots and positioning all the way until the final day.
“To go through it, and to come up short is hurtful,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone in the moments afterward. “There are still dejected guys in that locker room, but I’m proud of every one of them. They gave everything they had.
“There were a lot of people after the Toronto loss that gave up on this team. The players and the coaches continued to believe, and we gave ourselves a chance. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
Still, disappointment lingered, and may be on players’ minds for however long. Pressing the final game to overtime, but not making enough plays in the end, won’t go away easily.
Yet, neither will the ultimate story of the season.
This was basketball team that improved as the season wore on. It was a team that wore its emotions on its sleeve, that survived injuries to its most productive players, and still won games. The Nuggets started the season not quite knowing how to finish games, but in the six-game winning streak that put them at the doorstep of the playoffs, performing in the clutch became a strength. With 31 wins at the Pepsi Center, they became one of the best home teams in the NBA.
Jamal Murray grew from a player in competition for the starting point guard spot in the preseason, to an indispensable one by season’s end. He was of the most improved players in the entire league.
Nikola Jokić, who will be in the mix to make an All-NBA team, grew into the type of star the Nuggets had been searching for. He was brilliant on Wednesday night, scoring all of the big buckets against the Timberwolves when the Nuggets needed to stem a tide or continue momentum. He had 35 points on 14-of-26 shooting. He made all seven of his shots in the third quarter, in which he scored 17 points.
After one 3-point make, Minnesota’s young star, Karl-Anthony Towns, turned with an incredulous look on his face and just trotted down court. There wasn’t anything he could do stop Jokić. The Nuggets’ big man added 10 rebounds.
Jimmy Butler, however, was a handful. The Timberwolves leader finished with 31 points, and scored 70 combined points against the Nuggets in the last two games he faced them.
Turnovers were only an issue because there were many live ball miscues. The Nuggets only had 15 turnovers, but the Wolves turned them into 23 points.
And so on.
Minnesota won the day. It advanced to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, which was the longest playoff drought in the NBA.
The Nuggets’ arrow, however, is pointed up. That much has been apparent all-season long. Wednesday night was a missed opportunity. But the future remains bright.
“We had a lot of positives this season,” guard Gary Harris said. “We improved a lot. We’re a very talented team. We had some learning experiences from games we shouldn’t have lost early in the season that came back to haunt us. And, that’s just how it goes. We’re just going to have to figure out how to get better next year, so that we’re not in this position.”
Said center Mason Plumlee: “Every season you never know what’s going to happen. But we took a stride. Guys stepped up throughout the year. There’s some positives for sure.”
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter