Inside the Nuggets team dinner — minus one uninvited player — that might save their season

DENVER — Poor Aaron Gordon.

When the Denver Nuggets big man gets to Minneapolis on Wednesday, with the defending champs in prime position to finish this Western Conference semifinals series against the Timberwolves in which they looked cooked not too long ago, his teammates will all head to their favorite local steakhouse without him in advance of Game 6. Supremely valuable and universally beloved though he may be, the 28-year-old is the only player on the roster who is not invited to the latest team-bonding affair.

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“DJ, y’all going to team dinner?” Gordon asked Nuggets veteran DeAndre Jordan from across the locker room after their 112-97 win in Game 5 at Ball Arena on Tuesday night that gave them three straight wins and the 3-2 series edge.

Jordan, the resident organizer of the players-only affair that might go down in team lore if Denver survives this series, wouldn’t budge on his superstitious stance.

“Yeah — not you though,” Jordan answered back at Gordon. “We’ll see you next round (of the playoffs). Sorry, dawg. We’ll bring you some takeout though.”

Gordon, who had been so morose at this very locker when the Nuggets were crumbling just eight days before, offered a megawatt smile and a laugh.

“I understand,” Gordon said. “I understand.”

So, what did Gordon do to deserve an exile from off-nights of camaraderie and fine dining with his basketball brothers? He was the only player who didn’t make it to the dinner in Minneapolis on Thursday night when the Nuggets’ title defense was on the brink after those disastrous first two games against Minnesota. The gathering was just what they all needed to brighten the darkest of moods.

You know what happened next. The Nuggets started playing like the Nuggets again — chief among them (now) three-time MVP Nikola Jokić — and took Game 3 in dominant fashion. As such, with the basketball gods having deemed this dinner the secret to all that ailed them, the decision was made that Gordon would not be allowed to attend until their good fortunes came to an end.

So they wined and dined without him at the same restaurant again on Saturday night, then tied the series 2-2 the following evening at Target Center. Gordon, in turn, will now find himself flying solo in Minneapolis yet again. And truth be told, he couldn’t be happier about it.

Is there a more telling sign that these Nuggets will do everything they can to flip this script back in their favor? They’ve turned the narratives upside down in these past three games, in the kind of way you rarely see this time of year, and there’s no going back now — no matter how many lonely meals Gordon must endure in the process.

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Let’s take a moment to review where this fascinating matchup was just a week ago, back when the Timberwolves played so well that young Anthony Edwards was inspiring “MVP” chants in enemy territory, and recap what has happened since. As I wrote after Game 2, the Timberwolves had been beautifully built — by their old basketball boss, Tim Connelly, no less — to stop Jokić in his Serbian tracks. That plan, designed from the inside out, worked to a ‘T’(imberwolf).

Fast forward to Game 5, not long after Jokić received his third MVP trophy in the past four seasons from commissioner Adam Silver, and the big man turned in a performance for the ages: 40 points on 15-of-22 shooting, with most of his damage done in unfair fashion against four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Oh yeah, Jokić had 13 assists, no turnovers, seven rebounds, two steals and a block, too.

GO DEEPER Jokić puts on masterclass and the Nuggets look like the champs again

After looking so suspect in those first two games, when Minnesota’s bigs were so effective that Jokić quipped that he might need to clone himself as a solution, he is averaging 33 points (60.6 percent shooting overall), 9.7 assists, 9.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.7 blocks in these last three games. Beyond the numbers, the return of Jokić’s greatness is a massive spirit lifter for this Nuggets group that had been confused as to why he struggled so mightily earlier in the series. The same can’t be said for his superstar counterpart.

After all the well-deserved national spotlight that came with Edwards’ spectacular play, from the seemingly endless Michael Jordan comparisons to the ‘Good Morning America’ interview after Game 2 that was as mainstream and high-profile as it gets, the 22-year-old had his first bad game of this series (18 points on 5-of-15 shooting; nine assists, four rebounds, four turnovers). It certainly didn’t help that his steady backcourt mate, veteran Mike Conley, was out with a sore right Achilles tendon, but this was not the same Edwards we’d seen in the first four games.

To hear Reggie Jackson tell it, none of this would have happened if the Nuggets hadn’t found a way to change the energy that had been off since the start of the postseason.

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“This whole playoff run before Game 3, we had been so tight,” Jackson told The Athletic. “We were happy that we took care of business against the Lakers (in the first round), but we hadn’t played our best basketball yet. And you can feel when you’re too tense. We came into Game 1 (against Minnesota), and we were like, ‘We’ve gotta win,’ but we didn’t look like ourselves at all. Game 2, we got our butts beat, and were still not being ourselves.”

The turnaround started, Jackson said, while they all sat around during that first dinner, before Game 3.

“We were really just watching Game 4 between the Knicks and Indy,” Jackson recalled. “A few people had a glass of wine. We were just honestly chatting, and the conversation was funny, joking around. Everybody was relaxed. Everybody stopped being so tense about how we have to win, or we have to be perfect in our schemes. I think we were just overthinking everything. I think it was just good for us to be around each other and finally breathe.

“We needed to be around each other. We knew what we had to do, and we knew we had something to accomplish. But it was time between the games to breathe and relax and talk about life. That really helped.”

Jordan’s efforts didn’t stop there though. As was widely reported after Game 3, he convinced Nuggets coach Michael Malone to share with the team a two-minute ‘diss video’ of media pundits predicting Denver’s demise after the first two games. The motivational work of art, which was produced by a member of the team’s video staff, was sent by Jordan to his teammates in a group chat.

For Gordon’s part, he marveled at the extreme swing in emotions that came from their last two home games. The Timberwolves had embarrassed them in Game 2 on May 6, with Gordon among the many Nuggets — players and coaches alike — who lost their composure in the most unflattering of ways. While he didn’t have the benefit of dinner with his teammates to unwind in those three days between Game 2 and Game 3, he decided to go on a bit of a selfless shopping spree as a way to turn the mental tide.

“I bought some three-wheel cars for my family,” Gordon told The Athletic. “A little retail therapy. They’re called Vanderhalls. They’re really dope. I went in looking to buy just one. But generosity, and just having a little bit of fun, helped.”

They all agree on that much.

(Photo of Aaron Gordon: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)

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