Will Nuggets be tough enough to make play­offs?

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Den­ver Post Columnist

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.

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