Taking that L on the Way In: Beating the Bucks a must in Denver

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots the ball against the Charlotte Hornets during the first half at Spectrum Center. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

How big is Monday night’s Nuggets-Bucks game at Pepsi Center?

Bigger than a Greek Freak, that’s for sure.

Sure, the math and the pragmatic alike will note that it’s just one game in an 82-game schedule, that there are still 19 left before the playoffs.

But if you’ve watched or coached or played for the Denver Nuggets lately, you know the truth in any language.

Huge in English.

велика In Serbian.

μεγαλόσωμος in Greek.

Venti in Starbucks.

The Nuggets have been on a slide of epic proportion of late. A team that many believed to be the second-best team in the NBA’s vaunted Western Conference – with a puncher’s chance to win it all – suddenly looks a lot more like a good old-fashioned dumpster fire. And the Bucks – who head to Denver as the best team in the East (hands down) and without the services of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP (and favorite to win again) – could be the squirt of gasoline that fuels a complete and total meltdown.

Or, Michael Malone and Co. could just as easily douse the flames. A win over Milwaukee – even if they’re not beating Antetokounmpo – could not only be big, but vital.

Since the All-Star break, the Nuggets have been downright awful. Can’t beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. Can’t beat the teams the really need to beat. Can’t play defense. Scarier yet, they can’t decide what or who they’d like to be with just over a month to go before the postseason.

It would be impossible for “self-doubt” not to creep into the Nuggets locker room. After a home loss to the godawful Warriors, even the Nuggets’ lone All-Star suggested “maybe that’s us.

After nearly blowing it against Charlotte (somehow managing to give up 112 points) and then actually blowing it against Cleveland – respectively the worst-scoring team and worst period team the East – confidence in the Nuggets is dwindling fast. Internally. Externally. Locally. Nationally. It feels like Malone is grasping at straws, pushing all the wrong buttons and slowly losing his handle on what used to be the happiest roster in the NBA.

Oh, what a win over the Bucks would do.

That win over Toronto eight days ago was Fool’s Gold. Sure, the Raptors are a nice team, but Drake and his city are pretending if they think their team is anywhere near as good as the 2018-19 champs. Like the Nuggets, the Raptors now lack the double-superstar lineup required to win it all. Besides, the Bucks are a whopping eight games ahead of Toronto in the standings.

About those Bucks. They’re good (for real) even without Antetokounmpo. Granted they’re not near as good, but good nonetheless. That’s a double-edged sword, especially for a team that can’t seem to take care of business. If the Nuggets – knowing that the MVP isn’t going to be playing in Denver – think they can just show up and win, something they tend to do often, they’re sorely mistaken. Milwaukee might not have its best player, but they also just got drubbed by the Suns on Sunday night, so they, too, have something to prove.

A win over the Antetokounmpo-less Bucks will come with a slight asterisk. At the very least, the bleeding in Denver will stop, which is exactly what the doctor ordered.

But a loss to the Antetokounmpo-less Bucks will be followed by a giant exclamation mark, the kind that says its officially time to hit the panic button.

A win on Monday buys the Nuggets some time to figure out what ails them. A loss will make time fly in the way nobody wants it to. Trying to cure the ails of the Nuggets in time for the playoffs will feel like cramming for a test without the textbook.

Michael Malone once confidently told Lakers fans who’d just visited Pepsi Center to “Take that L on the way out.” Tonight, against the Milwaukee Bucks, the best team in the East, it will be nearly impossible for the Nuggets not to take their most recent “L”, which came against the worst team in the East, into the game.

The Ls are stacking up in Denver lately and the Nuggets are desperately trying to reverse their disturbing trend. Beating the Bucks is a must.

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