Will Nuggets be tough enough to make playoffs?
The only shot that really mattered during the Nuggets preseason was a nasty shove Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook delivered to the chest of Denver center Nikola Jokic, who hit the floor and rolled like a 250-pound tumbleweed.
The referees called foul, hitting Crazy Russ with a flagrant one. “I flopped,” said Jokic, suggesting the joke was on Westbrook.
Here’s the serious question: There’s no doubt the Nuggets have the talent to make the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2013. But is Denver tough enough to stop getting pushed around by the bullies in the Western Conference?
“We don’t have the Bad Boys,” said Denver coach Michael Malone, whose father served as an assistant in Detroit from 1988-95, when Bill Laimbeer and the Pistons could transform a game into a steel-cage match faster than Dennis Rodman would worm his way under the skin of foes.
The mild-mannered Nuggets live in a tough neighborhood. The West is turf controlled by the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Thunder. Sometimes, it seems as if Denver would prefer to be invisible, quietly mind its own business, trying to sneak away with a postseason berth without anybody noticing.
It’s not that the Nuggets are soft. But nobody mistakes them for intimidating. Why did Denver barely miss the playoffs in the spring? Well, when push came to shove, the Nuggets backed down, losing 10 of 15 games decided by three points or less.
During the final seven days of the season, when a postseason berth slid from Denver’s grasp, the team was pushed aside in painful losses by Houston guard James Harden and Westbrook, during a heartbreaking 106-105 loss to Oklahoma City. Inferior talent was the No. 1 reason the Nuggets fell short. But lack of grit was also a factor.
The basketball narrative has changed in Denver because Josh Kroenke spent big in free agency
to land 31-year-old Paul Millsap, who joins the Nuggets after four consecutive seasons as an all-star in Atlanta. Millsap was proud of Jokic for dusting himself off and refusing to be shaken emotionally Tuesday, when Westbrook tried to physically intimidate the young center during the opening two minutes of a preseason game.
“That’s the NBA. Only the mentally tough teams win games,” Millsap said. “Hopefully we’re one of those mentally tough teams that when things go tough, we’re still all right.”
Millsap is unflappable on the court. But he rarely growls. If the Nuggets want to run with the big dogs in the West, will they be respected by Draymond Green of the Warriors, Jimmy Butler of the Timberwolves and Westbrook, who all play with an edge?
“Wilson Chandler is not going to get punked. He might be a nice guy and might be quiet, but he’s not going to let somebody cross that line. I think Gary Harris has that same thing in him, I think Jameer Nelson has that same thing, and I think a lot of our guys do,” Malone said.
“By no means do we have a guy that’s going to just start throwing elbows and getting reckless. But I think we have guys that have mental and physical toughness, and understand the importance of not allowing people to walk all over you. Because if they do it once, then they’re going to have you, and they’re going to put you in their pocket.”
Yes, the idea of an NBA enforcer is as dated as Rick Mahorn, who retired in 1999 and is now 59 years old. The Nuggets, however, struggle to play solid defense. And it’s more than the frequent inability of Harris to stop a quick guard from beating him off the dribble. This is a team without a mean bone in its body. Defense is attitude, and the Nuggets don’t have one.
The baddest man in the Denver locker room might be Will Barton, and he appears to weigh maybe 175 pounds, when soaked in sweat.
“Right now, I’m around 190. I’m not as skinny as people think I am,” said Barton, correcting me. “At the same time, I still am skinny and I’m not the biggest. But it’s about being tough. You don’t have to be the biggest and the baddest to believe in yourself. I back down from no one. And I fear no one.”
It will take more than scoring sprees by Jamal Murray and the sweet passes of Jokic for the Nuggets to make noise in the wild, wild West.
Denver will have to fight for respect.