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"It's just a little different this year": A common denominator has the Nuggets united like never before

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 2, 2018

LOS ANGELES — You could hear a pin drop on the Nuggets’ team charter home from Minnesota on the final night of the 2017 regular season. A few hours earlier, the Nuggets fell in overtime to the Timberwolves in a winner-take-all-game 82. Besides Nikola Jokic, who joked with his head coach on the Nuggets’ flight back to Denver that he “was cooking” during his 15-point third quarter, there weren’t many words exchanged over the two hours spent in the air.

“That’s one that will stick with us for a long time,” Michael Malone said.

Over the next few weeks, Denver sat at home and watched teams, who the Nuggets felt they were better than, battle it out in the playoffs. But inside, a fire started to burn as Denver turned its attention to the offseason, one which the Nuggets attacked head-on. The team spent a week together in Atlanta at a voluntary minicamp organized by Paul Millsap in August and the majority of the roster was in Denver weeks before the Nuggets officially kicked off the season at media day last week. At training camp, those around the team continuously praised the energy, enthusiasm and cohesion that was apparent at practice all week long.

Ahead of a pivotal season where both internal and external expectations are as high as they’ve been since George Karl roamed Denver’s sidelines, the Nuggets are more united than they’ve been at any point over the last five years.

Why?

“The heartbreak,” Will Barton deadpanned. “… We’ve got a real competitive group and everybody wants it. It’s just a little different this year.

“You can just feel the energy, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players, equipment managers, everyone. Everyone feels it. We know what’s upon us. We just have to go get it.”

Millsap feels it too. Of course, the 33-year-old four-time All-Star been through his fair share of heartbreak, including last season when he only appeared in 38 games due to a wrist injury. In 2014, Millsap’s Hawks lost in seven games to the Pacers in a memorable first-round playoff matchup. In 2013, his Jazz lost on the final day of the regular season, eliminating them from playoff contention in a similar fashion to how Denver fell to Minnesota last year. He’s lost and gotten swept in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“I’ve had worse heartbreak than that,” Millsap told BSN Denver. “That’s been my message to these guys. ‘You can’t dwell on that. You’ve got to move forward. You’ve got to continue to get better. Continue to improve as a team.’ Heartbreak can unite you, but it can also break you and hurt you. We choose to use it as a positive. We choose not to dwell on the past. This is a new year for us and we have different goals and different ambitions this year.”

The Nuggets haven’t shied away from their playoff aspirations throughout the preseason. Denver knows it would have been a playoff team had Millsap, who from all accounts came into camp in pristine shape and determined to prove that the disappointment around his individual play last season won’t define the back half of his career, not missed 44 games.

The Nuggets’ reality is that they haven’t played a playoff game since Damian Lillard won Rookie of the Year and The Harlem Shake shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. Millsap’s 87 career playoff games are more than the 61 that the rest of Denver’s roster has combined to play. The Nuggets boast roster continuity but 24-year-old Gary Harris is the team’s longest-tenured player and Denver lost a respected veteran and strong locker room presence in Darrell Arthur this summer.

How will the Nuggets act in the face of adversity? How will they manage the lofty expectations in front of them if things go awry early in the season? Who will be the uniting voice to say what needs to be said and bring this young team, who one league executive remarked to BSN Denver in the lead-up to training camp “doesn’t have one bad guy in its locker room” together after dropping two games in a row at some point this season?

Malone hopes that throughout the highs and lows that his group will encounter this year, they’ll use the heartbreak and agony they felt following that fateful night in Minnesota as motivation.

“At some point, you’ve seen it with teams and you’ve seen it some great NBA players throughout history, it’s the pain, the disappointment that drives guys, that gives them a motivation and a hunger and a passion to come back and not find themselves in that same situation again,” Malone said. “If that’s the common denominator for our group that’s going to help unite us and help us move forward, then that’s great.”

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