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Halfway there

Mike Olson Avatar
May 12, 2023

“Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.”
– Theodore Roosevelt

If the former Bull Moose Party leader knows anything about anything, these Denver Nuggets and their fanbase must have a lot of belief, because for better and for worse, the team is halfway there.

At the close of last season, and with the looming returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr. on the horizon, team President Josh Kroenke made it known before the offseason truly started that this year had a single goal that would make it a success: the organization’s first championship.

Whether that statement was the first domino in the chain of this season, or simply a bellwether of the arc they already knew they were on, the tone was set for this year at every level of the organization.

Coach Michael Malone further stretched his growth curve as a leader, expanding his thinking around past inflexibilities like rookie play, platoon replacements, and more to improve on his abilities and give himself a bevy of options that dismantled his first two series opponents. While there have been numerous players stepping up in waves around superstar Nikola Jokic, Coach Mike and his crew have straight up coached their asses off in the first two rounds, and have left the very talented Chris Finch and Monty Williams very much in the dust.

GM Calvin Booth had a vision that surrounded Joker with defenders who could turn around and have a boat-raiser like Jokic raise all of their collective shooting averages in return. What that prescient thought has returned is a team that got a full season to learn exactly how to pull their “string” on defense, transitioning from a bottom-10 defensive squad at season’s beginning to a top-10 version after the All-Star Break, up until they did some coasting into the playoffs. Now that every game counts, Denver seems to have answers on the defensive side of the ball that give their opponents difficulties no matter what they attempt.

Two-time (and we biased folks think maybe shoulda been three-time) MVP Nikola Jokic took a set of capabilities that had just earned him All-Galaxy recognition, and somehow bumped it up a notch while Porter and Murray worked their way back into the fold. Ruminate on how complex a task that is, and marvel that Nikola somehow yet again made it look effortless. After an MVP-worthy regular season campaign, his two highest scoring games of these playoffs have been two of Denver’s three losses, and he is still somehow wildly outperforming every other player on the stage at this stage. He leads the league in the postseason in category after category, a humble little star from a humble little town outshining all those first-round diamonds. Finding a Jokic in the second round is the equivalent of stumbling upon the Hope Diamond while digging out the space for your septic tank. Who knew you’d find a giant gem amongst the crap you thought you might be sifting through?

Jamal Murray lifted himself back from the doubt of a difficult injury return to the pivotal sand burr of a point guard he’d shown himself to be pre-injury. After two years of toil and reconstruction, Jamal built his game and his bravado back brick by brick, playing through some of the bumps and bruises a younger Malone might have struggled to watch in a regular season campaign. The love and latitude Malone showed his fiery on-court avatar is now paying off in spades, with Murray buoying Denver on a few occasions with his incendiary scoring.

Aaron Gordon took a look the mirror after a season-plus with Jokic and was man enough to realize he still had some basketball IQ to gain. Whatever summer school AG went to deserves a 50 in its own right, as AG has been a man possessed on the defensive side of the ball all season and all playoffs long, and contributing on the offensive end as a former-first-and-now-often-fifth option. When Murray and MPJ were finding their sea legs, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown were still learning what Jokic-Ball made truly possible, Gordon was the second fiddle and stalwart through the first third of this Nuggets season, carrying them until they started getting the larger offensive engine to truly fire. The flexibility and humility of Mr. Nugget is an oft-underrated key to this season’s overall success.

Michael Porter, Jr heard the criticisms and attentions to his past game, and spent his recovery time in Study Hall, learning more of the defensive game while he was down so he could become a more complete player as he worked his way back into game shape. Porter was also the beneficiary of a longer leash from Malone, which has paid off in the most complete basketball of his career. Mike is no longer a defensive liability, with length, intelligence, and speed to spare. Mike is now more often a plus on both ends of the floor. Shooting slumps no longer portend a vanishing act, which is also why Porter is rarely a minus on the stat sheet any longer. With those additions, he has become the perfect relief valve to the Murray/Jokic two man game, and should only be a larger part of that whirlygig as the trio moves forward.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a ring and wants another, and has been preaching the path to his teammates all season. He might have displayed more heart, grit, and fire than anyone in the last two games that closed out the Phoenix series. Devin Booker might have certainly said so, if he’d decided to chat with anyone in the media before ducking out of the building after the Suns’ season set.

Bruce Brown drank the Kool-Aid that Booth and Malone were selling in the offseason, and came into a situation ready-made for his skills. Brown also sacrificed a ton this season to be a part of a bigger picture, and is exactly the type of get-it-done role player the team had envisioned in pulling him in.

Even a rookie like Christian Braun has played the game inside the lines Malone has delineated for him after a season’s seasoning and flourished. Jeff Green levitated at least once a night to entertain the crowds, but more importantly stay in the younger guys ears. Role players, veterans, and vocal leaders like DeAndre Jordan, Vlatko Čančar, Reggie Jackson, and Ish Smith have stayed vocal and supportive of their teammates while they have navigated the ups and downs of a 53-win season now combined with their first eight wins of these playoffs. Everyone has played their part.

It does feel different this year, doesn’t it? Even if they don’t somehow win it all, this one feels different. Like these are just the first eight wins of this journey. A repeating journey, by the way, that these Nuggets have never managed more than 10 wins in since they joined the NBA. Do they have eight more in them? It feels more possible than it ever has. They sure look like a team that is unimpressed by what they’ve accomplished so far. Harrison Wind beautifully captured what that series-ending and definitive win looked like for their two biggest stars…

A 25-point drubbing of a team that embarrassed you a couple years prior, and that’s all the more enthusiasm you can muster. I love it. It’s not that this victory isn’t worth celebrating, and I’m sure the team will. For the first time, it doesn’t feel like maybe this is all the Denver Nuggets can do. Whether they complete the task this year or not, for the first time, it feels like maybe this is just halfway.

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