Pummeled by Timberwolves, Nuggets refuse to panic ahead of Game 7

MINNEAPOLIS — There is no elasticity left. Hyperbole exists. The Nuggets stand with their toes dangling over the edge of the cliff, a view never required during last year’s championship run. They have reached Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals.

Let’s call this series what it is with no historical perspective required: a clumsy mess of brilliance and blowouts.

Everything screams that the Nuggets should be concerned. With a chance to extinguish the Timberwolves on Thursday night, the Nuggets played with the urgency of Eeyore.

And yet, there is no panic. Disappointment? Yes. Humiliation? Absolutely. But no alarms were blaring in the locker room. The only sound an hour after the game was Nikola Jokic, airpods in, humming along to one of his favorite songs. He is the temperature of this team. And this mood remains the overwhelming reason they will win on Sunday.

Do you believe?

Coach Michael Malone has leaned on this more than Ted Lasso over the last week. The Nuggets are not a Gucci knockoff. They have been authentic for a calendar year. They have exceeded expectations, and returning home in front of a full-throat crowd at Ball Arena on Sunday, they will live up to their warranty. It’s what they do until they don’t.

And why waste time thinking they won’t? Nuggets Nation will lose fingernails over the next few days. And surely the Sunday bottomless mimosas will feature orange-flavored liqueur and pink-colored Pepto-Bismol.

Fans fret. They worry. It’s what they do. This pretzeled passion is what makes sports so enjoyable and miserable.

But this is not about them, Nuggets. It’s about you.

And these humbled players were not running hot. Nor were they running from the sobering reality that they suffered the largest loss in NBA history by a defending champion. Even before Jokic soaked his feet in a red tub of ice, he was “cool” with what happened.

“They beat our ass. They were better in every segment of the game,” Jokic said. “When you lose by 45, it’s not something that happens everyday. We need to accept it.”

Jokic walks the tightrope of playing with emotion, without becoming emotional about the result. All he lost was a game. He wasn’t trying to sell the idea that Jamal Murray was hurt, or that Crunch the mascot was too annoying, or that the refs swallowed their whistles.

“It was a great loss,” Jokic said in a nod to what can be learned over the next 48 hours.

The Nuggets own rings for a reason. They have shown why in this series by refusing to give in to frustration, if not exhaustion. In two of their three defeats, they have been throttled. They boarded a plane to Minnesota trailing 2-0 to the delight of the national media that has turned doubting them into a cottage industry.

Accountability provides the path back to redemption. Their best players demonstrated it in Game 3. They will do it again on Sunday.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We don’t want it to be easy. We embrace challenges,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “I have full faith in this team.”

Murray walked into his press conference like he was meeting the media after a morning shoot-around. He was candid, reflective, calmly pointing the finger in the mirror.

“We played terrible. I played terrible. Own it,” Murray said after scoring 10 points and only two in the first half. “Now, we gotta go win it.”

Critics will say the Nuggets are delusional after what played out at Target Center. They raced out to a 9-2 lead — “We had them, right? It didn’t look good for them,” said Jokic as he acknowledged my laughter a few feet away — and were outscored by 53 over the final 45 minutes.

The Timberwolves double-teamed Jokic with success because Denver could not bury open shots. After carrying the Nuggets at times vs. the Lakers, Michael Porter Jr. failed to score in double figures for the third straight game. Denver’s bench became a ghost. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remains inconsistent.

The one player whose performance continues to cause angst is Murray. He is a closer who has looked finished for long stretches. In the Nuggets’ three losses, he has missed 37 of 50 shots, and appeared uncomfortable doing it because of an achy calf and, as of Thursday, a sore elbow. In the Nuggets’ three wins, he has made 26 of 52 from the field. Will his shooting limb feel better in a few days?

“I hope so for our team’s sake,” Murray admitted.

The Nuggets need him in rhythm. They have proven they cannot win without his meaningful contribution.

Denver’s problems are not disguised. They have issues with Anthony Edwards, lack physicality in the paint and get careless with the ball.

But let’s not forget what we have learned about these Nuggets. They care about their legacy. They have answered every bell, passed every inspection. Lose and the criticism will be deserved and scathing. But guarantee they will respond, and you won’t need a refund.

The knockout game has arrived. It is impossible to stretch this rubber band. The Nuggets spent last June doing something they had never done. Time to do it again. And snap back.

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