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The Nuggets Have Been Exposed For All To See

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets attempts to pass over Karl-Anthony Towns #32 and Naz Reid #11 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at Ball Arena on May 06, 2024 in Denver, Colorado.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Certain blowout playoff losses can be flushed from the mind. When the other team takes 45 three-pointers and makes 26 of them, you are free to shrug your shoulders and blame shooting variance. When a defending champ starts the game a little sleepy and lets a win get stolen from them, you can excuse some level of complacency. Better yet, maybe an important player is carrying a nagging injury. That changes everything!

Unfortunately for the Denver Nuggets, there are no such excuses to be made in the wake of their 106-80 loss in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. Yes, Jamal Murray is playing through a strained calf, but a shiny bionic leg wouldn't have saved him and his teammates last night. That's because the Nuggets lost for a simple reason: They got outplayed and outworked by a team that is much tougher than they are.

The Timberwolves are so mean. They came into this game without the services of three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, and yet managed to attack the Nuggets with a version of their defense that was even more ferocious than the one that earned them the league's top defensive rating in the regular season. Murray was treated like a wounded animal, hunted up and down the court by Nickeil Alexander-Walker and bludgeoned by Jaden McDaniels. Nikola Jokic was outmuscled and outfoxed by Karl-Anthony Towns, Naz Reid, and Kyle Anderson. The Timberwolves refused to even acknowledge the existence of Denver's attempted screens, fighting through and around them so quickly that it often felt like an extra defender had sprinted off the bench to blitz Murray. The Nuggets were so cooked, so unable to even think about getting into functional offensive sets, that they resorted to Aaron Gordon isolations as early as the first quarter.

Worse than the ass-kicking itself was how the Nuggets responded to it. Jokic shrunk from the action, Murray spent the game looking wild-eyed at various officials, begging for fouls that were never coming, and head coach Michael Malone stormed onto the court in the first quarter to square up with an official who had missed a call. The low point arrived a short time later, when Murray, seated on the bench, threw a heating pack onto the court in the middle of a play.

What does a defending champion owe itself and its fans? Back-to-back titles, or even a return to the Finals, is certainly too much to ask. The playoffs are too grueling, and their results too vulnerable to chance, to expect a breezy repeat. But dignity is not too much to ask for. The Nuggets eked their way past the Lakers in the first round, and that was nice, but now they have been met by a real opponent, one that plays like the 2003–04 Pistons might have if you had put Dwyane Wade on that team.

Monday night's loss was the kind of defeat that can throw a franchise off its axis. That bright future containing several more years of title contention suddenly seems a little dimmer this morning—now they have to deal with the Wolves, the Thunder, and Victor Wembanyama? Worse yet, this is the kind of loss that can threaten the past. Every recent title winner is at all times surrounded by wraiths, each howling, "Miiiiiickkkkeeeeyyyy Moooouuuuussseeee Riiiiiinnnggg!" as they wait for an opportunity to drag a team into hell. The Nuggets, who, need I remind you, faced the East's eight-seed in the Finals last year, have now offered themselves up to these devils. The road from here back to respectability is long.

"I've been swept before, and we're looking to avoid that," said Aaron Gordon after the game. Gee, is that all? Good luck.

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