Mile High Sports

Frei: Don’t let the Nuggets off the hook with lower expectations than those for the Avalanche

Apr 11, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) defends Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) in the third quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Funny how perception works.

Both the Nuggets and Avalanche went into the final game of the 2017-18 regular-season knowing that a win in what amounted to a play-in game would get them a playoff berth as the No. 8 Western Conference seed.

A loss would send them into the off-season.

At home, the Avalanche beat St. Louis and advanced to the first-round series against Nashville. The Blues were done.

On the road, the Nuggets lost to Minnesota in overtime, with the unforgettable summarizing image of 6-foot-10 Nikola Jokic being forced to the corner rather than fighting to move in the general direction of the hoop in the final seconds of regulation.

The Timberwolves got the No. 8 seed and went on to face the Houston Rockets in the first round. (They’re down 3-1 in the series heading into Wednesday’s Game 5.)

So the Stan Kroenke empire at least had one team in the NBA or NHL playoffs, for the first time since 2014. The Avalanche getting the series to six games also maxed-out the possible home dates for a one-round-and-done team without the home-ice advantage.

It seems as if the Predators-Avalanche handshake line just ended.

Rather, though, it’s been a few days, and the reasonable consensus is that — stop me if you’ve heard this before — that the Avalanche had a terrific season, falling just one point short of doubling its total from the horror show that was 2016-17. They have no shot of pulling off duplicating that feat, since it would require piling up 189 points — a mathematical impossibility.

The bar is set for next season for the Avalanche.

Playoffs or bust.

Go deeper, perhaps to the Western Conference finals, or be considered disappointing.

Continue the progress.

No regression.

Reward the cadre of loyal fans who stuck with this franchise through thick and thin, and retain and add to allure for those being brought back or diving in for the first time.

To their credit, that’s how the Avalanche  players are thinking, too. The league’s youngest team got a taste of the playoffs in the franchise’s first appearance since Nathan MacKinnon’s rookie season, and MacKinnon and others addressed the point of heightened expectations — accepting that they are inevitable and even welcome.

Cut through all the small-print disclaimers about the Nuggets’ season — mainly the inexplicable losses to horrible teams. They ended up 46-36, similar to and even arguably better than the Avalanche’s 43-30-9 record. (An overtime or shootout loss is worth one point in the standings and is nudged to a third column, but it’s still a loss.)

As maddening as the Nuggets’ mercurial play was, they staged a stirring stretch run — one that was far better than the Avalanche’s closing weeks — and came up only seconds short of essentially duplicating the hockey team’s accomplishment. They had won six in a row going into that night at Minneapolis. The younger Jokic is at the same sort of crossroads MacKinnon faced before responding with a validating season. The challenge is to play like a star every game-night — and not only often enough to tantalize. Jamal Murray is the real deal and Gary Harris, when used, is a difference-maker, too.

There’s hope.

So in a way, I don’t think the Nuggets have gotten enough credit for getting above .500 for the first time in five seasons and coming so close to making the post-season. Absolutely, much of the reaction to the Avalanche season is based on the magnitude of the recovery. The Nuggets didn’t have as far to climb.

OK, I’ve handed out the orange slices.

The point is, the Avalanche and Nuggets should face similar expectations next season.

Don’t just make the playoffs, advance in them.

Otherwise, the Nuggets essentially will be rewarded for fouling up in the final seconds at Minnesota.

* * *

Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the national champion 1942 Wisconsin Badgers and their wartime heroics, and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

A great season? Sure, if it’s a forecast of things to come

It ain’t over ’til … it’s over

Avs’ best shot is Bernier stealing a game … or three

Nashville hitting all the right notes as NHL city

The man from Saskatchewan has paid his dues … a lot of dues 

Remember when making the playoffs wasn’t so monumental?

How’s this for half full?

The obligations of stardom for MacKinnon, line

An Avs’ playoff berth can be flashback 

Here come the Knights … now and maybe in postseason

Nathan MacKinnon’s MVP talk becoming more legit

Amid March Madness, how the NBA should emulate the NHL 

Nathan, good intentions, bad idea 

Fourteen years ago, Steve Moore played his final game for the Avalanche

Avalanche going into final month in control of own destiny

Is Duncan Siemens becoming more than an “organization” guy?

At least here, NHL trading deadline was much ado about very, very little

Avalanche standing pat wouldn’t be irresponsible inertia

If the NHL stays away again, USA Hockey should be all-collegians

Just your average Harvard guy from West Vancouver

As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs have stayed in the playoff hunt

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible