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Nuggets denied repeat by team 'built to beat us'

The Nuggets saw their bid to repeat as NBA champions disintegrate in stunning fashion, as they blew a 20-point third-quarter lead on their home floor in Game 7, a defeat that left them both shell-shocked and frustrated.


  • May 20 2024
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Nuggets denied repeat by team 'built to beat us'
Nuggets denied repeat by team 'built to beat us'

DENVER -- With about 30 seconds left, reality began to set in and Nikola Jokic started to congratulate Minnesota Timberwolves players.

In the span of 22 minutes, the Denver Nuggets' quest to repeat as champions disintegrated in stunning fashion. The Nuggets blew a 20-point third-quarter lead on their home floor to lose 98-90 in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

The way they lost -- squandering a 58-38 lead from the 10:50 mark in the third quarter -- left the reigning champs shell-shocked and incredibly frustrated. It was the largest blown lead in a Game 7 in the past 25 years.

"The season's over," a frustrated Michael Malone said in his news conference as Wolves players could be heard roaring in celebration in their locker room next door through the wall.

The suddenness of the Nuggets' repeat run ending had not settled in yet.

"That's what's hard," Malone said when asked about what went wrong. "F--- being up 20. Season's over. It's hard."

After dropping the first two games of the series at home, Denver won the next three games and seemed to be back to its championship self. But the Nuggets wasted two opportunities to advance to their third Western Conference finals in five postseasons -- both in shocking fashion. They were obliterated in Game 6 at Minnesota by 45 points.

And then came the second half Sunday. Up by 20 after Jamal Murray buried a 3, the Nuggets watched the Timberwolves go on a 54-24 run. By the time that run ended, Minnesota was up 92-82 with 3:07 left, deflating a raucous Ball Arena.

Jokic, the three-time MVP, finished with 34 points, 19 rebounds and 7 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 3-point range.

The Nuggets' two big stars did not get much help. Michael Porter Jr. missed 9 of 12 shots and scored 7 points, while Aaron Gordon, who had been terrific during this series in the Nuggets' three straight wins, finished with 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

While Nuggets such as Murray and Christian Braun said they believed Denver should have won and advanced, Jokic said the Wolves were designed to beat them.

Tim Connelly built the Nuggets into a championship contender as the franchise's longtime president of basketball operations. Minnesota hired Connelly in 2022, and he proceeded to trade for players such as Rudy Gobert to put together a group that seemed perfect to stop Denver.

In the second half, Jokic had to battle Minnesota's trio of big men in 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 have basically two All-Stars, two probably first-team defensive players. Mike Conley is the most underrated player in the NBA, probably.

"From the bench, they have a Sixth Man of the Year. ... [They are] one team that they can do literally everything. They can be big, small."

When Connelly was asked in the hallway near the Nuggets locker room about his blueprint to eliminating the champs, the Wolves president of basketball operations was humble.

"It's called luck, man," Connelly said.

Before the Nuggets went into a much earlier offseason than expected, they reflected on how difficult it was trying to defend a championship.

"Just mentally and physically, conjuring up the energy to fight like you're being hunted," Murray said. "I think that's the emotion. When you're the hunter, you have so much more motivation and you grasp on to anything to prove everybody 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 tough part. They beat us, but we had so many great opportunities, including myself, so it's just tough, man."

Jokic said that with all the talent in the league today, a team needs "to be basically perfect to win the championship."

Malone said he knew how hard it would have been for the Nuggets to repeat after they played through June last season, then played their main guys all the way to the last game of the regular season to secure the second seed in the West.

"This is just a momentary delay," Malone said. "It's a failure, it's not fatal. We'll be back.

"The better team won. So I'm taking nothing away from Minnesota ... But mentally, emotionally, physically, I think guys are gassed. They're dead tired. They gave me everything I could ever ask for and that's why as much as this hurts, I'll walk out of this building tonight with my head held very high."

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