In the end, the Denver Nuggets just didn’t have it.
Now, “it” can be defined in many ways. If you’re a homer, “it” can be boiled down to simply “Jamal Murray.” Homer or not, the Nuggets missed Murray, the star of last year’s Bubble who was lost late in the season to a torn ACL. There’s no denying that the Nuggets are a significantly better team with Murray; whether or not they should have been swept by the Phoenix Suns – with or without Murray – is a different debate for a different time.
“It,” if you’re simply referring to Game 4, could also be defined (specifically) as “Nikola Jokic in the second half.” In case you missed it, the NBA’s MVP was ejected after a Flagrant 2 foul that capped the greatest individual season in Nuggets history as pathetically and sadly as a re-release of Disney’s “Old Yeller” – as in, nobody wants to see that. Was Jokic’s frustrated swipe of Cameron Payne’s face dumb? Absolutely. But it also reinforced how little respect the Denver Nuggets – even with the league MVP – still have around the NBA. Was it a foul? No doubt. Was it flagrant? Again, no doubt. Was it a Flagrant 2 worthy of ejection? Reggie Miller didn’t think so. Better yet, ask yourself this: Would LeBron James have been ejected for the same thing in the same circumstance? There’s not a chance in hell. But again, that’s a different and irrelevant argument for a different time. The Nuggets, with or without Jokic to finish Game 4, weren’t climbing out of their 0-3 hole.
Or maybe, the Nuggets just had it coming.
Perhaps Karma had as much to do with getting swept by the Suns as Chris Paul or Devin Booker.
Something stinks at Ball Arena, and it’s not the players on the hardwood or ice; in fact, they’re pretty darn good. But there were strong indicators that things aren’t so warm and fuzzy in Denver on Friday night, an evening that should have been joyous for more reasons than one – the first (nearly) full-capacity crowd in over two years and ever hosted by Ball Arena, a chance to cheer for the first-ever NBA MVP in Nugget’s franchise history and the opportunity to witness the home team claw its way back into a second-round playoff series that sat at 0-2.
What’s not to like?
Well, that list might be longer than you think, and Friday night’s crowd wasted no time revealing how a fan-base reallyfeels. As was already well chronicled by Paul Klee of the Gazette, Nuggets and Avalanche president Josh Kroenke was actually and unmistakably booed by the home crowd as he was handing off the MVP hardware to Nikola Jokic. The timing seemed odd, if not inappropriate, given the celebratory nature of the award. In reality, the boos were nothing more than a justifiable, audible outpouring of the frustrations shared by the entire sports market.
From a 10,000-foot view, what’s there to be frustrated about? How can a fan base be upset with owners who have fielded two playoff teams – the Avalanche for four-straight seasons and the Nuggets for three – in the same building? As Klee posed in this article, why is good no longer good enough?
The obvious and most glaring issue is the local television situation. If you’ve cared even just a little, you’re already familiar with the situation, so there’s no need to rehash it here in detail. However, if you were wondering if the fans have been buying what Kroenke Sports Enterprises have been trying to sell – that mean old Comcast just doesn’t care about us fans – they’re clearly not. That might be true on some level, but we already know that Comcast is just a business and there’s not much of a personal relationship between them and anyone. We’re not overly offended by that. But if you have even the slightest inclining that your favorite sports team doesn’t care about you (or perhaps more specifically, whether you get to watch them on TV), well, that hurts.
There’s a market-wide belief that if Stan or Josh Kroenke, the men behind Altitude Sports and Entertainment, truly wanted to find a way for us to watch, they could. The organization bumbled and fumbled its way through league “blackout” rules – at first allowing the details of the rules to come into play and blaming it on Comcast and the leagues, but then miraculously finding a way to override bylaws so that fans could watch, even if it wasn’t on Altitude. It all reeked of inconsistency and insincerity.
Those boos on Friday night? A lot of them were for that.
The boos might have been from a handful of angry Avalanche fans, too.
In a bizarre scenario that ultimately didn’t play out, the Avalanche – had they won Game 6 in Las Vegas – would have returned to a half-empty arena just one night after the Nuggets enjoyed a full crowd for the first time in two seasons. Huh? That’s right – the Nuggets were allowed full capacity on Friday night, while the Avs’ crowds would have been cut in half just one day later. The obvious question – why? – has never really been answered. The Governor, who (justifiably) received plenty of blame for the inequities across local sports participation and attendance over the past year, made it a point (on more than one radio station) to say that he had nothing to do with this one. He effectively said, “Play ball!” (or “puck” or whatever) and said the attendance discrepancy had something to do with the league – not any decision he oversaw. And that’s what KSE said, kind of. The organization basically insinuated that the Avalanche’s attendance issue had something to do with the NHL, and maybe a little to do with the CDC. The explanation was clear as mud with no one in sight taking ownership for the bizarre, would-have-been, digression in capacity levels.
Though it ultimately didn’t matter, the grumblings and opinions of a few who cared to poke around, was that figuring out how to re-issue more tickets, after already selling tickets based on limited capacities, would have been “too hard” for those in charge of ticketing.
On the heels of a pandemic, most Americans have happily come to accept that things may not always go perfectly, and that there must be some form of compromise in order to return to “normal.” So what if the tickets already sold were handled differently than the tickets suddenly available? So what if you’d have liked a better seat, but just couldn’t get one given the circumstances? All okay – just part of getting through the worst of it, compromises we’ve cove to accept since March of 2020. But those boos indicated there was more to it than that. While you would have been willing to spend your hard-earned dough on a team with hopes of hoisting the Cup, the organization – presumably – didn’t want to jump through the hoops or apply enough elbow grease for you to attend a Game 7. Boooo is right.
Speaking of Cups, that’s what “Bill and Jill,” two longtime season ticket holders, got as a thanks for renewing their Nuggets season tickets (all four of them) – a cup (lower “c” and having nothing to do with Lord Stanley).
One, aluminum, cup.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Bill and Jill were, too. Surely, this – the same aluminum cup you’d get if you purchased an overpriced cocktail inside the arena (but wrapped in a nice box) – wasn’t the team’s way of saying “thanks” for their commitment to spend $33,600 on the 2021-22 Nuggets. Besides, they had four lower bowl seats – good seats to be sure, but not courtside or Lexus Club – and there was only one cup. They laughed – it had to be a joke.
In the past, as a gesture of thanks, the team might send out a crystal basketball featuring a Nuggets logo – something a little cheesy but still “nice” to put on the mantle or in the office. They’d received team schwag, things like that. But this season, after the Nuggets sat on their money – the funds they’d paid for the 2019-20 season that was never fully realized – for the better part of two years, they got… a cup. Why bother?
Adding insult to injury is that credit card statement Bill and Jill will get here in a week or two. Next season, they’ll pay a per-seat price just north of $200 (call it $205, after add processing fees and not counting preseason games and such). In order to have firsts dibs on playoff tickets, they needed to commit to that. That’s a fairly common practice, but it’s undoubtedly a high-leverage tactic. Fans are most excited when a championship is in sight – who’s going to say no and miss a chance to be there for the ultimate payoff? – so sticking with the tickets for another year is sometimes a commitment made begrudgingly. It doesn’t help when that same seat – the one that’s worth $205 next year during the regular season – suddenly jumps in price….as in, jumps right out of the gym for the playoffs. In round 1, those same seats were priced at $412; round 2 they climbed to $536; and if they Nuggets had continued to win, the ante would have been $659 for the Western Conference Finals and $783 for the NBA Finals. When the playoff prices were revealed, it felt like the organization was trying to recover from the pandemic in one fell swoop.
On Friday night, the boos could have been even louder… if all the seats had been sold. It was obvious that there were plenty of no-shows, never-solds or scalpers left holding the bag. In particular, there were more than a handful of luxury suites that sat completely empty. The free, white t-shirts that sat idly on the chairs that were never going to be used made it easy to see there were plenty of fans who said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
On Sunday night, the empty seats, and plenty of the seats that had been occupied by grouchy Nuggets fans on Friday night, had been sold to Suns fans. Fan or not, chasing good money after bad is never a good idea. Even if the Nuggets won, it felt as if they’d only be delaying the inevitable. As such, Suns fans flooded Ball Arena.
“When we ran out for warmups, it felt like a home game,” Chris Paul said during his postgame interview on TNT.
What’s more embarrassing to an owner, getting booed in front of your own home crowd before a playoff game, or not selling out that same game?
Without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets weren’t likely going to beat the Suns. There’s no shame in that. But shouldn’t a team that features the league MVP be able to muster a single win? Getting swept? Now that’s embarrassing.
After all, they’d just beaten the NBA’s “other” dynamic backcourt – Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in round 1. How could the Nuggets not sneak away with at least a lone victory over a team that didn’t even make the playoffs a year ago?
Maybe The Joker’s frustrations boiled over to the tune of a Flagrant 2 ejection because his coach accused everyone except Will Barton of quitting in Game 2. Maybe that same coach could have made a halftime adjustment or two so that the Nuggets weren’t dreadful in most third quarters during the postseason. Maybe Michael Porter Jr. would have been a better defender if he was allowed to learn from his mistakes all season rather than getting yanked whenever he made one. Maybe playing the Lakers, something the Nuggets try to avoid like the Coronavirus, wouldn’t have been so bad after all.
Maybe it would have helped to play in front of a full crowd, all pulling in the same direction.
Maybe if you could watch them on TV, maybe if the ticket prices hadn’t skyrocketed, maybe if they’d given Bill and Jill more than just that single, stupid cup.
Maybe, just maybe, when the boos and the brooms came out, Karma had finally caught up with the Nuggets.