How tight are the Denver Nuggets right about now?

Well, that’s an interesting question, because they looked loose and lazy on Tuesday night in Houston. But after they inexplicably lost to the Rockets – not just the worst team in the Western Conference (by a mile!), but possibly the worst team in the Western Conference since the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets – the best in the West (for now) might be tighter than a fiddle string.

And Nuggets fans?

Well, they’re turning coal into diamonds. They’ve seen this act before.

Losing to the Rockets was the most “Nuggets thing” the Denver Nuggets could have done. With a chance – wait, not just a chance, a golden opportunity delivered on a silver platter – to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference, the Nuggets laid one of the biggest eggs in franchise history. Every team in the NBA should beat the Rockets, essentially a G-League team playing out the string in an effort to win the draft lottery. How then, does the best team in the West, with a monumental achievement on the line, fail to do so?

This wasn’t a mid-January, second night of a back-to-back kind of set up. This was a gift. And the Nuggets looked a gift horse in the mouth.

Does it feel a little like the Nuggets are – as they’re prone to do – playing with fire?

This loss is anything but confidence-inspiring heading into the postseason. And what a shame, because if ever there was a year to advance to the NBA Finals, this might be it. The West is unusually weak. The Nuggets are unusually healthy. And while there are always teams that present a challenge along the way, perhaps the team that most dangerously stands in Denver’s way is…

…the Denver Nuggets.

Blame history; the Nuggets have never reached the Finals or finished with the West’s best record. Blame the coach; Michael Malone didn’t have his team ready. Blame the players; the Nuggets shouldn’t need any one of their 72 (give or take) coaches to beat a team like Houston. For anyone who’s ever cared one ounce about the Denver Nuggets, there’s a truth that’s suddenly crept to the forefront, something nobody wants to admit: This is what the Nuggets do. They break your heart.

There was a time, not all that long ago, that the Nuggets were clearly the team to beat. But ever since an impressive home-win against Memphis back on March 3, the Nuggets look a team that can’t be trusted. After another win over Toronto, Denver went on a four-game skid. Since beating the Grizzlies the Nuggets are 7-8 and have three games remaining on the schedule.

At one point during their four-game losing streak, Michael Malone suggested that a championship caliber team still has its share of ups and downs.

“What do you think Golden State’s record was after the All-Star break last year,” the coach said following his team’s third straight loss and well-knowing that the Warriors won it all last season. “It was 11-12. It happens.”

That’s true, coach. But – and we hate to break this to you or your team – you’re not the Golden State Warriors. Not yet. Not until you prove otherwise. The Warriors ability to shut it off and turn it back on likely stems from boredom. Playing flawlessly in March certainly can’t compare to perfect basketball in June, when rings are on the line. The Nuggets don’t know that feeling and can’t quite explain how to get it.

Until they do. Once they do, then maybe it will be appropriate to compare themselves to the seven-time World Champion Warriors (four of which have been won since 2015).

You know what the Warriors probably wouldn’t have done, no matter how bored they might have been having the West’s best record and a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed?

Lose to the lowly Rockets.

The Nuggets were so bad in Houston that even Altitude’s Katy Winge took them to task during the postgame show.

“You’re playing at a professional level right now, in the NBA, and you have a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and there’s even a question about effort in this game?” she thundered from a desk that’s been mostly-all smiles this season. “That’s not on the coach. That is on the players not being ready to play and not caring enough.”

She wasn’t wrong. The Nuggets roster, when compared to Houston, looks like Jordan’s Bulls playing a college team. Nikola Jokic – the best player in the NBA, whether he wins a third-straight MVP or not – had eight of the Nuggets 20 turnovers. The Nuggets players failed to show.

Malone isn’t without blame though. He shouldn’t need to remind his players of the opportunity at hand, much less take care of business against the NBA’s least qualified team, but he still captains this ship. He is good at calling his team out after the game though. He called his team “soft” – an adjective that’s become far too useful for Malone.

During the media scrum Jokic was asked what he thought of Malone’s assertion.

“I have no comment,” Jokic said.

Ugh. That got awkward in a hurry.

Malone also added:

“(Houston) dominated us.”

“I was disappointed in terms of our effort and approach tonight.”

“We did not take that opportunity seriously…”

And, finally, and perhaps most concerning: “If that’s how we’re going to play, we’ll be out in the first round. Easy. Easy.”


It stings because it’s true – and everyone playing for, interested in or playing against the Nuggets knows it.

Ironically, as ugly as it was in Houston, the West was not lost on Tuesday night. Mathematically, not earning the No. 1 seed is still highly unlikely. Any Memphis loss will do the trick, or a single win against Phoenix, Utah or Sacramento will do, too. The MVP race, however, was probably lost (meanwhile Joel Embiid was busy dropping 52 points against one of the best teams in the NBA, the Boston Celtics). Confidence – whether anyone wants to admit it or not – could have been lost as well.

This is not how a team should be entering the postseason. There simply shouldn’t be this many questions – so much doubt – surrounding a team that’s supposed to win a championship. Until the actually win it all, the Nuggets are not the Warriors. They can’t expect to just flip a switch.

If the Nuggets – like the Avalanche did a year ago – go on a tear and win it all, an embarrassing loss to Houston will be but a footnote – something the fellas and fans will all chuckle about years from now.

But if they don’t, the Houston loss could represent everything that’s wrong with the Nuggets. And remember, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

The Nuggets didn’t clinch on Tuesday night, but you can bet they’re clinching – hard – right about now. And that’s not what champions do on the eve of the postseason.