Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series looking back at the 2016-17 Nuggets season.
PART 3: Fifty-one Days in Eighth
The most successful part of the Nuggets season started on a sleepy Monday night in Denver. It was Jan. 16. Orlando was in town. Most people were still crunching the numbers and perusing the video of the Nuggets’ win over the Pacers in London four days earlier to make some sort of sense out of what they witnessed.
Orlando never knew what was about to hit it. The Nuggets scored 125 in a victory. Then, 127 in a win over the Lakers in their next contest. The Nuggets won seven of nine and they were being led by an offense that had started to become one of the deadliest in the NBA. Starting with the win over Indiana in London, the Nuggets scored 120 or more points in 11 of their next 23 games. They won all 11 of those contests.
On March 3 in Milwaukee, the Nuggets started rookie Jamal Murray at point guard for the first time. He helped lead the team to a victory that vaulted the Nuggets into the eighth spot in the Western Conference. The playoff race was officially on. Now, the Nuggets, with so many young and inexperienced players, were forced to protect it for the balance of the season.
Nikola Jokić’s rise gave them a fighting chance.
The second-year center had endured the toughest part of his season — the early struggles; starting, then becoming a reserve, then starting; playing power forward before moving to center. All of that was gone. Now, he was hitting a stride that was record-setting, team-leading, and ultimately franchise-altering.
The real fun started in New York on Feb. 10. He wrecked the Knicks front court, scoring 18 points in the third quarter and 40 for the game as the Nuggets rang up a 131-123 win at Madison Square Garden. Jokic became the second Nugget ever to put at least 40 on the board at the Garden. David Thompson was the other.
“I don’t think he is a star in the making,” said Malone after the game. “He is a star.”
Jokić’s first triple-double of the season came in the game against Milwaukee that put the Nuggets in the eighth spot. His most high-profile triple-double came three nights after the New York victory, against Golden State. Jokić’s 17 points, 21 rebounds and 12 assists led a Nuggets offensive assault that ended in a 132-110 home blowout of the defending Western Conference champions. It was the signature victory the Nuggets had been in search of. It featured the best long range shooting of the year – a season-high 24 3-pointers. And that marksmanship was led by rookie Juancho Hernangomez. Hernangomez hit a career-high six 3-pointers as part of a career-high 27 points.
Turns out, it was the first of two show-stopping victories for the Nuggets. On March 22, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers came to the Pepsi Center – and the Nuggets ran them out of the building, 126-113. Six Nuggets players scored 15 or more points in that one.
Meanwhile, Jokić posted five triple-doubles in 18 games, from Feb. 3-March 16. He had back-to-back triple-doubles for the Nuggets in consecutive road wins at Chicago and at Milwaukee on Feb. 28 and March 1. The Nuggets were rolling. They had 10 wins in 15 games in a span of 29 days (Feb. 24-March 24). From Jan. 16-March 24, the Nuggets went 20-16 overall and 13-6 at home, averaging 114.9 points while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field in the process.
They’d held on to the final playoff spot throughout. But as hot as the Nuggets were, the Portland Trail Blazers were hotter and their suddenly improved play – 13-3 in March alone – finally allowed them to overtake the Nuggets for the No. 8 seed in the West on March 26. The Blazers never relinquished it. On April 9, when Russell Westbrook hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to cap a 50-point triple-double and give the Thunder a comeback victory at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets were officially eliminated from the playoffs.
But there was still some unfinished business.
Read Part One: Sorting Things Out
Read Part Two: The London Game
Next in the series: Finishing at 40