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Young Denver Nuggets looking to shed ‘soft’ label ahead of playoffs

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, celebrates with guard Will Barton after hitting the winning basket in the final seconds against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 8.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, celebrates with guard Will Barton after hitting the winning basket in the final seconds against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 8.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone wasn’t happy Friday night, but at least he looked relaxed and more comfortable.

Malone, who once celebrated a Game 7 win over the San Antonio Spurs by taking off his suit jacket and tie while leaving his white dress shirt buttoned up to his chin, at least let the top fastener loose after his team suffered its worst loss of the season to the Clippers — a game between two teams gunning for the second-best record in the Western Conference.

“I thought we were soft tonight,” Malone said, “from beginning to end.”

After the 132-103 loss to the Clippers, Denver players sat in the locker room and heard veteran guard Will Barton deliver the same message — that the Nuggets, despite being among the conference’s best the last two seasons, aren’t viewed as a credible threat because they’re not tough enough, because they’re soft.

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And if you ask players around the West about that assessment, they’ll tell you they hear no lies. Even Denver guard Monte Morris said Barton spoke nothing but facts.

“Will had a good speech for us — about five minutes — about [how] teams think we’re soft. And if they get into us, they can disorient anything they can do. And they did that tonight,” Morris said. “Our offense was stagnant from the jump and they weren’t feeling us on defense.

“Going forward, these teams here, we have to beat to be elite. And if we talk about championships, we can throw that out the window if we don’t show up for these games.”

The Boston Celtics have won 14 of their last 17 games and Jayson Tatum is a big reason. He’s averaging 31.1 points over the last 10 games, eight of them wins.
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The Nuggets are different from almost any other team competing for a championship in the Western Conference. While LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have won titles and James Harden has been on the doorstep, those players all are on teams that underwent significant changes following last season.

Denver, on the other hand, mostly stood pat after its young team, led by center Nikola Jokic, stared down the Spurs in a seven-game series. The Nuggets were four points away from another Game 7 win, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round.

Those experiences, Malone said Friday, are evident in this year’s team, which is nearly identical to the one Denver had a year ago.

“I’ll be honest, going into the postseason, I didn’t know what to expect. Seven of our top nine players were making their playoff debuts, the eighth youngest team in playoff history. That was a crazy stat. It was going to be really interesting to see who we were going to be when the lights were on, on the biggest stage possible,” Malone said. “ … I think we surpassed a lot of people’s expectations. That experience, that confidence gained, you can see it in our group. We’ve been in Game 7s. We’ve been in must-win games on the road, and our guys have responded.”

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Friday’s game with the Clippers didn’t qualify as a “must-win” for Denver, but it was on the big stage. And for the third time in a row while playing on national television, the Nuggets lost.

Malone said he thought it was obvious the Clippers played with an intensity Denver was unable (or unwilling) to match. After the game, Jokic pushed back a little on that and on the idea that the Nuggets were soft. “I think we were fighting,” Jokic said. “They were just a little better tonight.”

The Clippers routed Denver 132-103 on Friday in a meeting of Western Conference powers by slowing down Nuggets one-of-a-kind center Nikola Jokic.

Barton, who spoke up after the loss, disagreed. This loss was an indictment of who the Nuggets are in the eyes of the NBA, a team that can be pressured and pushed, a group that can be bullied. And when the Clippers did it, Denver mostly just rolled over.

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“We didn’t bring it. From the beginning,” Barton said. “These are the types of games, this is the type of team we’re going to see and go through to get where we want to go. And to come out here and not match that intensity and effort, it’s very disappointing.”

Over the next month, the Nuggets will get a chance to recast themselves. They’ll either be viewed as a problem for the Lakers and the Clippers on the way to their goals this spring, or as more of a minor inconvenience to be dispatched.

In two weeks, they’ll begin a brutal stretch of schedule — six of seven games against playoff teams including the Lakers and Clippers. They’ll get a chance to prove that they’re more the team that battled for four overtimes with Portland in the playoffs than the one that got decimated by the Clippers on Friday.

“We held each other accountable in the locker room. We just said, ‘We got punked.’ If we want to take that next step, games like this, we’ve got to show up and be ready to play,” Morris said. “... We’ve got to start holding guys accountable when they’re not doing their job. And when you’re not doing your job, tell the guys who can pick your stuff up. I think going forward, we needed this ass whippin’ like this tonight. I think it’s going to make us better.

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“… We know how good we are. We’ve been here before. And sometimes, you need wake-up calls. And this is a wake-up call. If we want to take that next step, we have to make games like this competitive.”

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