It was all going so well at halftime.

The Denver Nuggets led the Minnesota Timberwolves 53-38 at the midway point of Game 7. In a winner-take-all matchup, the Nuggets were showing up and showing out. Jamal Murray was dominating, Nikola Jokic was doing everything, and the Nuggets were getting enough contributions from their rotation, especially defensively.

Then, the second half happened.

After going up by 20 points early in the third quarter, the Nuggets collapsed. They led 58-38 at the 10:50 mark of the third quarter, but over the course of the next six minutes, the Nuggets scored exactly one point. In that time, the Wolves scored 15 points of their own to cut Denver’s lead down to size, and by the end of the third quarter, the Wolves trailed by just one point.

“I feel like we got the shots we wanted and the opportunities were there. Our defense was there,” Jamal Murray recalled postgame. “I just think that run, the run that they had somewhere in the second half, we couldn’t recover from that one.”

From then on, the Wolves simply outshot and outplayed the Nuggets. From important three-pointers by Jaden McDaniels and Mike Conley, to putback dunks from Naz Reid and Karl-Anthony Towns, to a clutch fadeaway jumper at the shot clock buzzer by Rudy Gobert (?!?!) the Wolves showed up when the lights were brightest. They won the game 98-90 in what will go down as an all-time heartbreaking moment for the city of Denver.

Michael Malone, obviously frustrated after the game, was not enjoying the initial set of questions directed toward him following a Game 7 loss. “The season’s over, man. That’s what’s hard. F*** being up 20. The season’s over. You don’t understand that. The season’s over. It’s hard.”

The Nuggets couldn’t keep up the pace of their first half, scoring just 37 points in the second half while missing an exorbitant amount of open shots. Jamal Murray led the way with 35 points on 13-of-27 from the field. He had 24 points in the first half to help the Nuggets generate their lead, showing up for the first time all series as a dynamic pick and roll threat. Unfortunately, Murray shot 1-of-7 from three-point range in the second half and struggled to maintain his shooting efficiency from the first 24 minutes. He had two critical turnovers from ball pressure that turned into Minnesota points as well.

Nikola Jokic, while the final stat line remains incredibly impressive with 34 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 assists, was fairly underwhelming in the second half as well. He shot 7-of-16 from the field in the second half, but that included 2-of-8 from three point range. There were so many possessions when he settled for a three-pointer that just wasn’t there for him all night, and the Nuggets stopped punishing the Wolves inside.

Outside of Murray’s 35 points and Jokic’s 34 points, the rest of the Nuggets combined to score just 21. Michael Porter Jr. struggled all series, and in Game 7, he had opportunities to make plays. Unfortunately, he had just seven points on 3-of-12 from the field and 1-of-6 from three. Aaron Gordon contributed four points in 42 minutes. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope put up five points in 40 minutes. The Nuggets bench combined for five points on four shots.

“I think so much is being placed on their shoulders,” Malone shared of the burden Jokic and Murray carried this series. “We’re expecting Jamal and Nikola to continue to pull rabbits out of their hat, man. Somebody else has to give them some help. Joker had 34, Jamal 35, and we just struggled to make shots. They’re a really good defense.”

It’s a tough place for the Nuggets to be. Their starting lineup, billed as the best starting five in the NBA, wasn’t good enough to win this series. The Wolves constantly disrupted Denver’s starters, yet the Nuggets had little else to go to off the bench with so much young, inexperience, and players that simply weren’t ready to be part of a championship blueprint.

The Wolves of course deserves credit for that too, because they’re a team that’s built to take away Denver’s strengths of interior scoring.

“I think they’re built to beat us,” Jokic shared postgame. “They have basically two All-Stars, two All-Defensive First Team players, and Mike Conley, who’s the most underrated player in the NBA probably. I love the guy. He’s so good.”

Of course, how good the opponent is doesn’t change how painful a loss can be when winning was always the expectation.

“We had our opportunities tonight, and we didn’t make them, and that’s what stings,” Murray shared. “I don’t know. I think we should have won tonight. That’s the tough part. They beat us, but we had so many great opportunities, including myself, so it’s just tough man. I’m excited for next year.”

So now, the season is over.

The Nuggets had a great opportunity to repeat as NBA champions this year. They would’ve been the first team in six years to win back-to-back seasons, and there’s a certain amount of parity in the NBA at the moment that makes repeating difficult. Still, the Nuggets had their shot. They were up 20 points in the third quarter of Game 7. To not come away with a victory given those circumstances is heartbreaking.

“Every series is a learning opportunity, and this feeling sucks, as I told our players,” Malone shared. “You go through training camp all the way through, and then it comes to an abrupt halt, and that hurts. So, you use that feeling as motivation to come back a better player.”

Murray expanded on how difficult it was defending the championship this year: “I’d say just mentally and physically conjuring up the energy to fight like you’re being hunted. I think that’s the emotion. I think when you’re the hunter, you have so much more motivation, and you grasp onto anything to prove everybody wrong, and you have a constant chip on your shoulder.”

“We won it last year. Teams in the West, they regrouped, they retooled. How are we going to beat the champs?” Malone said. “And teams got better. You have to tip your cap to Minnesota…that was a helluva series. They gave us all we could handle, and they wound up winning Game 7 on our homecourt, which is a tough one to swallow.”

The Wolves earned this. They applied as much pressure to the Nuggets as any team ever has. Their defense might be the best I’ve ever seen in person, and Anthony Edwards is a true superstar with how he carries himself, approaches the game, and lifts up his team. If there was a team for the Nuggets to lose to, a team built by former Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly, it was this Wolves team.

While the loss hurts, and while the dream of repeating is officially dead, it’s important to remember that the Nuggets aren’t done. Nikola Jokic is still the best player in the world. Jamal Murray is still under contract. The Nuggets can bring back the vast majority of their team if they so choose. Michael Malone is the right coach for the job, an emotional leader who can hopefully tap into this feeling of failure the Nuggets currently have and use it as motivation going forward.

“This is just a momentary delay,” Malone declared. “Failure is not fatal. We will be back.”

I truly believe the Nuggets will be back in the mix next year. This was a setback. It was not the whole story. That is still being written, even if this chapter ends in a painful way.

For now though, it’s time to say goodbye.

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