June 14, 2024

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“Season is over” — the Nuggets were left reeling after their Game 7 collapse

“Season is over” — the Nuggets were left reeling after their Game 7 collapse

DENVER — With about 30 seconds left in the game, reality set in and Nikola Jokic began congratulating the Minnesota Timberwolves players.

In the space of 22 minutes, the Denver Nuggets’ quest to repeat as champions disintegrated in stunning fashion. The Nuggets blew a 20-point lead in the third quarter at home, losing 98-90 in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

The way they lost — squandering a 58-38 lead at the 10:50 mark in the third quarter — left the defending champions incredibly shocked and frustrated. This was the largest Game 7 lead in the last 25 years.

“The season is over,” a frustrated Michael Malone said in his press conference, as the sounds of Wolves players celebrating in the adjacent dressing room could be heard through the wall.

The upset of the Nuggets’ repeat run ending has yet to settle.

“That’s the hard thing,” Malone said when asked what went wrong. “F— being 20 years old. The season’s over. It’s tough.”

After losing the first two games of the series at home, Denver won the next three games and appeared to be back in the tournament. But the Nuggets squandered two chances to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in five seasons — both in shocking fashion. They were obliterated in Game 6 at Minnesota by 45 points.

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Then came the second half on Sunday. After Jamal Murray led by 20 points, the Nuggets watched the Timberwolves take a 54-24 lead. By the time that drive was over, Minnesota was up 92-82 with 3:07 remaining, emptying a raucous Ball Arena.

Jokic, a three-time MVP, finished with 34 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists, but missed 8 of 10 from behind the arc. Murray scored 24 of his 35 points in the first half, but shot just 4-for-12 from three-point range.

The Nuggets’ two superstars didn’t get much help. Michael Porter Jr. missed 9 of 12 shots and scored 7 points, while Aaron Gordon, who has been great during this series in the Nuggets’ three straight wins, finished with 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

While Nuggets like Murray and Christian Brown said they believe Denver should have won and advanced, Jokic said the Wolves are determined to beat them.

Tim Connelly built the Nuggets into a championship contender as their longtime president of basketball operations. Minnesota hired Connelly in 2022, and he proceeded to trade players like Rudy Gobert to form a group that seemed perfect for stopping Denver.

In the second half, Jokic had to face Minnesota’s trio of Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid, while the Nuggets had to try to contain Anthony Edwards on defense.

“I mean, I think they’re built to beat us,” Jokic said. “Just look at their roster. They basically have two All-Stars, maybe two first-team defensive players. Mike Conley is probably the most underrated player in the NBA.”

“Off the bench, they have a sixth man for the year. … [They are] One team can literally do it all. “It can be big and small.”

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When Connelly was asked in the hallway near the Nuggets’ locker room about his plan to eliminate the champions, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations was humble.

“It’s called luck, man,” Connelly said.

Before the Nuggets went into an offseason earlier than expected, they reflected on how hard they would try to defend their championship.

“Just mentally and physically, getting the energy to fight like you’re being chased,” Murray said. “I think that’s the emotion. When you’re the hunter, you’re much more motivated and you’re stuck at anything to prove everyone wrong and you have a constant chip on your shoulder.

“I don’t know… I feel like we should have won tonight. That’s the hard part. They beat us, but we had a lot of great chances, including me, so it’s tough, man.”

Jokic said that with all the talent in today’s NBA, a team needs to “basically be perfect to win a championship.”

Malone said he knew how difficult it would be for the Nuggets to replicate after they played through June last season, then played their starters through the final game of this regular season to secure the No. 2 seed in the West.

“This is just a temporary delay,” Malone said. “It’s a failure, it’s not fatal. We’ll be back.”

“The better team won, so I’m not going to take anything from Minnesota…but mentally, emotionally and physically, I think the guys are gassed. They’re very tired. They’ve given me everything I could ask for, and for that reason, as much as it hurts, I’m walking out of this building.” “Tonight with my head held very high.”

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