Deciphering What the Nuggets Win over Cleveland Means

Thursday, March 23, 2017 | Denver Nuggets

By: Christopher Dempsey, Altitude Sports

On Wednesday night after what was most certainly the Nuggets’ biggest win of the season, the locker room was one part “ecstatic” and one part unimpressed. It had no choice but to be both.

That stems from the Nuggets view of themselves. A team that didn’t at least view itself as comparable to the competition would have been over the moon and nothing else after systematically dismantling LeBron James and the defending champion Cavaliers. The act itself would have been enough.

But the Nuggets view themselves as more than just a novelty act that caught lightning in a bottle for a night. Part of the makeup of this team is a chip that says if they play their game there isn’t a team in the NBA they can’t beat. Double-digit wins over the NBA’s two best teams – Golden State and Cleveland – would suggest they’re right.

Thus, you get this: “There is a very ecstatic locker room right now,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone, “because it was a hell of a win and everybody contributed.”

And you also get this: “I wouldn’t say (it’s) a signature win,” Nuggets guard Gary Harris said.

Because what’s a signature win to a team didn’t start the night with an inferiority complex in the first place?

Wrapping your head around the meaning of the Nuggets’ win over Cleveland is simple from a near future standpoint, but maybe a bit more complex from a beyond-this-season view.

The short view: It means the Nuggets are a game-and-a-half ahead of Portland, going into Thursday night’s games. Nothing more, nothing less. The fight for the eighth playoff spot is very much alive and kicking and hanging in the balance. There is still a game in Indiana on Friday. And there are still seven road games in the last nine overall to traverse before a seed can be locked down.

Harris put it succinctly when he said Wednesday’s win “was the most important game of the season right now just because of the playoff race we are in. We were able to get this one, so the next one is going to be just as important. When we go to Indiana, it’s going to be just as important for us just to continue to get wins.”

But there were moments that resonated.

Tops on the list was Nikola Jokic’s “Heisman Moment.” If this was a race for that trophy, Jokic’s grindhouse mauling of James, backing him down then hitting a short hook over him in the second half, would be his signature moment. Jokic all-but shrugged it off, which is exactly the kind of attitude that led the Nuggets to be happy but not bouncing off the walls after the win. And yet, that simple basketball play – posting up and beating down a defender in the most physical way possible – meant something. In a season of big numbers and big performances, that may be remembered more fondly than the triple doubles, the 40-point game at Madison Square Garden and all of the fancy passes he’s tossed around the court this season.

There was edge and purpose and just plain mean in it. The Nuggets want a little mean. They want to do the pushing. They want to send the message that there is no rolling into the Mile High City and waltzing out with a victory. There will be resistance. The Nuggets may even initiate the contact.

That is part of the foundation being laid by Malone and Co. And that leads to the long view of the night and what has happened this season in general. There is real talent. There is a clear player to build around (Jokic) and many more athletes that realistically figure into the Nuggets future and can be viewed as pieces that can eventually help the Nuggets contend.

“Whether that’s this season, or in the future there are great things in store for this team,” Malone said. “We have quality young players. We also have quality, high character people and players that we want representing our city and our organization. Hopefully our fans are very proud, not only on how we played but who our players are. I have so much respect for all of our guys.”

Christopher Dempsey: or Twitter: @chrisadempsey