The Denver Nuggets had an incredible season and served definitive notice that they will be a force to be reckoned with well into the foreseeable future.
But that will do little to erase the immediate sting of letting the Portland Trailblazers off the hook after leading by 17 points and forfeiting a golden opportunity to participate in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.
The Nuggets were firmly in control during a first half rally that featured a well-balanced offensive attack and a gritty defensive effort. A halftime advantage of 48-39 had confident Nuggets fans daydreaming of a Western Conference Finals miracle over the mighty Golden State Warriors.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets themselves might have been victims of that very same dream.
As soon as the second half began, it became painfully obvious that the Trailblazers were far from defeated. Shots started rolling in for Portland, and out for Denver. Loose balls and rebounds started going the way of the visitors, and a shocked home crowd saw a double-digit lead evaporate entirely just minutes into the third period.
For the entirety of the 2019 season, talk around the league has centered on what a composed squad the Nuggets are, even though they feature the third-youngest team to ever qualify for the NBA playoffs. But for the entirety of the second half, all the pitfalls of being a young team became painfully apparent as the more experienced Trailblazers dished out a perfectly executed lesson in how experienced teams maintain composure under pressure.
Portland’s C.J. McCollum led the charge. Now in his sixth year in the NBA, McCollum took it upon himself to ensure that his team’s season would be extended. McCollum hit shots from all over the floor.
Some of McCollum’s high, arching shots seemed to originate somewhere near Aurora. When the Nuggets extended their defense to protect against three-pointers, McCollum promptly put the ball on the floor and went straight to the hoop. The seasoned veteran finished with 37 points, which was a Portland franchise record for individual scoring in a playoff game.
Denver, meanwhile, missed shots from close range, failed to aggressively pursue rebound opportunities and generally took on the look of a team that has matured into a contender, but not yet a champion.
Nikola Jokic managed 29 points with 13 rebounds, but his shots wouldn’t fall down the stretch when they were sorely needed. Teammate Jamal Murray, who emerged as a budding superstar in the playoffs and latter half of the season, scored 17 points but was below his 20-plus points per game average over the previous 10 games. Like Jokic, Murray also went cold during crunch time.
So, those are the nuts and bolts pertaining to why the Nuggets lost. But looking ahead, I think there will be much more discussion pertaining to why the Nuggets are consistently winning, rather than why they lose. Their youth was a detriment Sunday night, but this experience will become a strength as they mature in the coming seasons.
If the Nuggets were on the cusp of a Western Conference Final during a season in which the average age of players on the roster was 23 years old, then it stands to reason that as they gain maturity they will also learn to withstand storms like the one they encountered against the Trailblazers in Game 7 Sunday night.
In summary, I was genuinely bummed out to see our hometown team go down in the way that they did Sunday night. But even so, I am extremely excited to see where this goes if this roster of talented players can be maintained and improved in the very near future.
Who knows, we could be staring down the barrel of a basketball dynasty right here in the Rocky Mountains. That would be a lot of fun.