Soft No More: The Denver Nuggets have found their toughness

Sep 22, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant (9) and forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) and guard Jamal Murray (27) react after a play as Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (39) looks on during the second half of game three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tough. Hardened. Resilient. Battle-tested.

Use whatever adjective you’d like, but the Denver Nuggets are suddenly all of them.

And while the Nuggets roster isn’t new by any means, tough is a relatively new identity. Soft is a word no athlete or team wants used in front of their name, but it’s safe to say that the Nuggets have been called soft a time or two up until recently. Whether that identity was fair or not is up for debate, but the fact of the matter is that nobody has ever confused the current Nuggets with the Detroit Pistons of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Another fact: These Nuggets have never advanced to the Western Conference Finals before either.

The last Denver team to do that? The 2008—09 Nuggets, which featured players like Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups and Dahntay Jones. Tough, tough and tough.

And before them? The only other Nuggets team to advance to the WCF? That would be the 1984-85 team, featuring the likes of Calving Natt, T.R. Dunn, Bill Hanzlik – tough guys, guys who weren’t afraid to assert their authority (or maybe even a well-placed forearm shiver).

In ’85, it was Hanzlik slugging it out with the likes of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Ralph Sampson and Artis Gilmore, players who had considerable inches – both in height and punch – on the Nuggets’ small forward. With a single stare, Natt could frighten just about anyone, while Dunn was simply a chunk of granite disguised as a basketball player.

In ’09, it was Martin shoving Dirk Nowitzki to the ground after a little extracurricular activity and just before an uncontested layup. And then it was Jones tripping up – literally – the great Kobe Bryant. And there have been a few NBA players as mentally tough as Billups, but none tougher.

So, for the current Nuggets to find themselves duking it out with the Lakers in the bubble version of the Western Conference Finals, it’s no wonder than they suddenly become tough.

There’s a fine line between dirty and tough – so fine, in fact, that there’s plenty of crossover. Jones’ intentional trip of Bryant was undoubtedly dirty, as was Martin’s shove of Nowitzki, but both gestures sent a very clear message – one that suggested whatever weapon was required to win, or at least put a stop to getting beat, would be deployed (rules be damned, of course). When Hanzlik famously baited a multitude of big men to take a swing, he was simply standing his ground. Every horse swats his tail at flies, but more often than not, it’s the fly who wins, causing the horse to run off; the pesky Hanzlik simply broke the will of players who were far bigger and better.

Dispelling the label of “soft” isn’t easy either. When nothing is done when a nobody opponent blows the kiss of disrespect in your face, the murmur just gets louder and louder. It requires more than one act of toughness to reinvent one’s self as “tough.”

Maybe the Nuggets finally got tired of hearing they were soft, because they’ve refused to be bullied of late.

Perhaps it started with Murray reminding a mouthy Royce O’Neale that “he couldn’t guard him” in game five against the Jazz. Or, maybe it was Paul Millsap physically taking exception to Marcus Morris’ goonery as the Nuggets battled back against the Clippers.

Or maybe the Nuggets mental toughness became evident after rallying from two consecutive 1-3 playoff series deficits.

The Joker – jovial and goofy by nature, but considerably tougher than his Softish Sombor exterior might suggest – has repeatedly clowned the ultimate clown in Dwight Howard, and he backed down the NBA Defensive Player of the Year runner-up for a go ahead bucket in the waning seconds of game two against L.A.

Maybe, by fighting through a LeBron James screen with a high elbow that ultimately sent a message to the King himself, Jamal Murray’s mean mug suddenly, and truly, looked as if it belonged on the mug of a man who’s not to be messed with. The Nuggets showed toughness by gaining, then losing, leads of 18 points and 20 points – separately, in the first half and fourth quarter in game three against the Lakers – and still managed to hold on for the win. They did this, of course, after a heartbreaking loss in game two.

By and large, the Nuggets are a bunch of very nice guys, plenty of whom have a very nice game to match.

But lately, it’s not advisable to get too cocky, too mouthy or too close.

You might just get punched.

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