Nuggets learn how to win one step at a time

High-flying underdogs on pace to 1st play-offs since 2013 but know they've much to improve

DENVER • The Denver Nuggets' worst loss of the season was less than 48 hours old when Tim Connelly, the team's president of basketball operations, found himself courtside before a National Basketball Association game against the Chicago Bulls, assessing some lessons of the defeat.

"A loss is never a positive," he said. "But we have to be realistic about where we stand. We've done nothing, and that team has done everything several times over."

He was referring to the Golden State Warriors, a superstar team who have demolished their share of opponents in recent years.

But what the Warriors did to the Nuggets one night last week was particularly gruesome, in part because Denver had entered the home game with a slim lead over Golden State in the West.

But then, on Jan 16, the Warriors scored 51 points in the first quarter and sailed to a 142-111 victory that sent a message to everyone on the opposing bench, inside the building and across the league: We are not going anywhere.

It was, for one night at least, illustrative of the gulf that still exists between the two-time defending champions and the rest.

Denver had been hopeful that they were bridging the gap, but they came out of that mauling understanding there was still work to be done.

"We got a little comfortable," forward Paul Millsap said. "It was a humbling experience."

Denver's Nikola Jokic trying to stop Donovan Mitchell as the Nuggets lost 114-108 to hosts Utah Jazz on Wednesday to drop to 31-15. The Serbian centre leads the West's second-best team in points, assists and rebounds.
Denver's Nikola Jokic trying to stop Donovan Mitchell as the Nuggets lost 114-108 to hosts Utah Jazz on Wednesday to drop to 31-15. The Serbian centre leads the West's second-best team in points, assists and rebounds. PHOTO: REUTERS

Still, these are heady times for the Nuggets. They are a colourful crew led by Nikola Jokic, a centre from Serbia and former second-round pick who facilitates the offence from the high post. In a league full of chiselled gods, Jokic, 23, has the dimensions of a melting iceberg. But at 2.13m and 113kg, he is a gifted passer and scorer, and he appears bound for his first All-Star Game.

GETTING THERE

We're a young team that is trying to become a play-off team and, once you become a play-off team, you hope to become a championship team. You can't skip steps.

MICHAEL MALONE, Denver Nuggets coach, on how there is a gradual process to achieving success.

His background - unsung prospect, semi-overlooked - is representative of the roster as a whole. Just one player in the team's regular rotation, the 21-year-old point guard Jamal Murray, was a top-10 lottery pick.

"It makes us all dogs," guard Malik Beasley said, "because we've been underrated our whole lives".

Millsap sees similarities between the Nuggets and one of his former teams, the Atlanta Hawks, who despite having little star power still finished with the best record in the East in 2015.

"Ego-less guys," he said. "Guys who don't care about getting the credit. This team is a lot more talented than that team. But that team used every inch of talent and ability to get things done."

The Nuggets are not using every inch of their talent - not yet, anyway. In the jargon of the game, they have untapped potential, and this is understandable.

They are as inexperienced as they are precocious, with seven of their top-11 players 24 or younger.

The West's No. 2 team (31-15) have had moments this term, such as beating the Raptors in Toronto was a big deal, but they are still a work in progress.

But their improvement has been evident; they are on pace to win 56 games and make their first post-season appearance since 2013.

According to coach Michael Malone, the Warriors' rout was just "part of our journey".

He added: "We're a young team that is trying to become a play-off team and, once you become a play-off team, you hope to become a championship team.

"You can't skip steps."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2019, with the headline 'Nuggets learn how to win one step at a time'. Print Edition | Subscribe