Editor’s note: This is the final of a four-part series looking back at the 2016-17 Nuggets season.
PART 4: Finishing at 40
The sting of the abrupt end to his team’s playoff run was still fresh as Nuggets coach Michael Malone discussed what he wanted to see out of his team in its final two games just moments after losing to Oklahoma City at home on April 9.
“Obviously our playoff hopes are no longer alive,” Malone said. “But we have two more games and we have to go on the road and play the right way.”
Finishing the season strong was left largely up to the youngest players. A host of banged-up veterans were shut down completely or playing drastically-reduced minutes. Rookies took the limelight. Not only had Jamal Murray been starting at point guard, but the Nuggets had two more rookies in line for major playing time in the final two games – forward Juancho Hernangomez and shooting guard Malik Beasley.
Beasley quickly became the story. An athletic guard, Beasley had bounced back-and-forth between Denver and the D-League, as the Nuggets searched for opportunities to get him game action all season long. His improvement may have been away from the spotlight, but it was on full display in the final two games. Beasley scored 16 and 17 points, respectively, in Nuggets wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City, on the road, to end the season. He shot 48.3 percent from the field in the two games, putting a smile on his face and an exclamation point on the Nuggets’ season.
The wins gave the Nuggets 40 for the season, a seven-game improvement in Year Two under Malone, and the most the Nuggets have had in a season in four years. The team finished with five wins in its last seven games, taking to heart the words of Malone, who had always preached taking the end of the season seriously, playoffs or not.
His team did just that.
“Every time we step on the floor it’s an opportunity for us to represent the Nuggets in the right way and create that culture and identity that we want,” Malone said. “The fact that we went 5-2 those last seven games speaks to our guys understanding the pressure of the games that we were playing, and even after that devastating loss at home to Oklahoma City, ‘okay, we still have a job to do, the season is not over.’ Our young guys took it seriously and went out there and played the right way. And we got back-to-back wins because of that. … I’m walking out of here with my head held high. Very proud of that group, and very excited about what’s coming down the road.”
Read Part One: Sorting Things Out
Read Part Two: The London Game
Read Part Three: Fifty-One Days in Eighth