Gut Ache or Check? What will Game 5 say about the Denver Nuggets?

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray (27) reacts to a call during the first half in game four of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena. Ashley Landis-Pool Photo

It is my belief that the 2019-20 Denver Nuggets are done. Finished. Finito. Bouncing the Bubble.

Hey Nuggets, you just lost to the Jazz! Where ya headed?

Disney World, across the street. 

Down 1-3 in their first-round playoff series with the Utah Jazz – a “better matchup” they surely believed as they not-so-subtly slithered their way from the No.2-seed to the No.3 – the Nuggets aren’t advancing to round two. They’re not winning Game 5 tonight. Or, they might. But they’re certainly not winning three-straight against a team that’s hungrier, grittier, tougher, meaner…

…Better.

Sorry. I said it. I don’t care what the regular season standings say. I don’t care that the Nuggets were 3-0 against the Jazz in the regular season. I don’t care who’s more hurt or who has more All-Stars or All-NBA players. On paper, the Nuggets are the better team. On the court in Orlando, they’re not. The Jazz have performed better, are better-coached and want it more; Donovan Mitchell said as much when he buried the Nuggets on Sunday night.

By tanking the final three games of the regular season in order to tinker with the playoff seedings, the Nuggets messed with the basketball gods. And now they’re feeling their wrath. And if you don’t believe in karma or the gods themselves, you might believe in Donovan Mitchell, who hung 51 on the Nuggets in Game 4 and surely took their desire to play him – rather than the Mavericks – personally.

To some extent though, that’s all spilled milk. What’s done is done. The Nuggets tanked, and the Nuggets are on the brink of elimination. And if the Nuggets somehow muster enough chutzpah to come back and win the series, I’ll gladly eat these words and declare Denver, as a team and city, ready to make a run at its first NBA championship.

But what happens in Game 5 tonight will say something.

If the Nuggets lose and lose bad, it says they lack pride.

If the Nuggets win, or even lose in a hard-fought battle, it means they didn’t quit (they gave it a go in Game 4) – which says something – but it also says they might not be built for the playoffs.

If the Nuggets go out with a wimper, it doesn’t mean the Jazz is that much better – they’re not. But such an exit is cause for concern. It might suggest that something bigger is wrong. Among those possibilities: Michael Malone has lost his team; the Nuggets have no true leader; the Nuggets still lack – still! – a true superstar (see Donovan Mitchell); the Nuggets are built for the regular season but not the playoffs.

All of those things are bad, and call for some major soul searching, if not major reform.

If the Nuggets show some fight – however you’d like to define that – it’s a different set of problems, and ideally, solutions: Michael Malone is the right coach who simply lacks all the right pieces, or the Nuggets have all the right pieces and need a different head coach (see the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors);  Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray need that third superstar; Michael Porter Jr. might be a superstar but needed this first taste of the postseason (just give him a year); the Nuggets need one more shooter and one more defender.

Any or all of those could hold true. And hopefully the Nuggets do demonstrate some grit – after all, tinkering with the final pieces of a puzzle is easier than changing directions all together.

But regardless of what happens tonight (and assuming the Nuggets won’t advance to round two), something needs to change. If “time” and “experience” is the answer, as it was last offseason for the Nuggets brass, then don’t expect anything different in the 2020-21 season (whenever it might happen).

It’s time to address the elephant in the room: The Nuggets – as currently constructed – ain’t winnin’ squat (other than a nice handful of regular season games). No longer can we seriously think of the Nuggets as having an “exciting young core.” That was okay two or three seasons ago, but not anymore. This team has more going for it than most – that’s a great thing. But in the NBA, that’s not enough – not if a franchise desires to win a title.

If the Denver Nuggets somehow escape the jaws of defeat en route to the second round, I’ll be the happiest wrong person in sports. But assuming they don’t, it must be determined what stands between the Nuggets and a championship.

Soon.

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