MINNEAPOLIS — The Denver Nuggets’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion, falling 112-106 in overtime at Minnesota in a rare winner-take-all game for the final playoff spot in a brutal Western Conference.
Here are seven takeaways from the final game of the season:
1. Fading forwards. This will obviously go down as largely a lost season for Paul Millsap, who missed 44 games after tearing a ligament in his left wrist and needing time to reintegrate himself when he returned in late February. But after looking like he had regained some rhythm during this six-game winning streak, Millsap finished the season with two stinkers. He went 3-of-10 for 10 points (five after halftime) Wednesday, after shooting 2-of-10 for six points in Monday’s win over Portland. Wednesday, he drew the tough defensive assignment of guarding all-star Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds. And play down low was physical on both ends, with Millsap hitting the deck multiple times. He did not speak to reporters following Wednesday’s loss, leaving the locker room while we were either talking with Gary Harris or Jamal Murray. Wilson Chandler, meanwhile, concluded his disappointing season with an 0-for-3 outing in 48 minutes. Trey Lyles also did not play, his seventh outing with five of fewer minutes since Millsap returned in late February.
2. Game 2 for Harris. Nuggets coach Michael Malone dropped an Apollo Creed reference before the game, saying that he’d play Harris 30 minutes if necessary because “there’s no tomorrow.” Harris ultimately got 21 minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting and recording one rebound and one assist. It was most strange to not see him on the floor for much of the third quarter, as Malone did not sub until the 3:25 mark, and all of overtime, as Malone went with the starting group until putting Mason Plumlee in the game for defensive reasons in the final seconds. Will Barton scored 24 points (9-of-22 shooting) and added eight rebounds and five assists as the starting shooting guard.
“It was tough,” Harris said of not being 100 percent healthy down the stretch. “But some things you can’t control. I’ve just got to get all the way back right, take care of my body this summer and get ready for next season.”
3. Stat time. In a game this crucial, several stats can be magnified. But these two stuck out:
* Turnovers: Denver had 15 that led to 24 points, a problem all season that popped up in the final game. Several of those were “live” turnovers, which led to transition opportunities for Minnesota. The Timberwolves had 12 fastbreak points, and the Nuggets had zero.
* Free throws: Denver went 11-of-18 from the line, while Minnesota went 19-of-25. The Nuggets were 3-of-5 after halftime, but did not shoot any in the fourth quarter and overtime. And the two misses were in the third quarter by Murray, one of the NBA’s most accurate free-throw shooters at 90.5 percent. Murray was frustrated with himself again after the game, calling those misfires “stupid” while also lamenting his missed 3-pointer in the final seconds of overtime.
“I don’t want to have that feeling next year,” Murray said.
4. The Year of the Joker. Nikola Jokic finishes the season averaging 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists, which led all centers. He’s likely to get some votes for the All-NBA team. And he was terrific in his final outing with 35 points and 10 rebounds, including a 17-point outburst on 7-of-7 shooting in the third quarter. Three of those makes were three consecutive 3-pointers, including one in which physical big man Taj Gibson tried to bully Jokic outside the arc. Jokic just turned around and shot it — and made it — anyway. Jokic said Gibson’s approach helped open up the floor for Denver, though that strength did push Jokic into the corner at the end of regulation before he had the ball stripped by Gibson.
“I’m good with that, if they want to pressure me,” Jokic said.
5. Brutal Northwest. The Nuggets finished with 46 wins, or 10 victories over .500. And yet, Denver finished last in the toughest division in the NBA. The Nuggets went 9-7 in division games, tied with Portland (which finished third in the West) and better than Utah (7-9) and Oklahoma City (5-11). Wednesday’s victory gave Minnesota the best division record among those five teams at 10-6. And again, the last time 46 wins was not enough to get into the Western Conference playoffs was 2013-14, when a 48-win Phoenix team (remember when the Suns were good?) missed the postseason by one game.
Murray on what he learned as a second-year player: “I know what it takes to win, the energy and the focus you have to have. How to handle runs. This team showed we can do that late in the season. We’ve got to do that from the start. We can’t wait until the last 10 games before we start playing like the team we should be playing (as). We gotta have that mentality from the start.”
Barton on his overtime floater he watched back immediately after the game: “Paul got it and tried to make it a play. Made a crazy pass to me, Jimmy (Butler) closed out to me strong and I got to the rim for a floater that I make every day. Missed.”
Devin Harris on what Denver’s young core can gain from the hearbreaking finish: “Those types of losses build character … they learn from them and they’ll become better players for it. It hurts right now, but they’ll look back and they’ll be better. They’ll work harder this summer and come back ready to play.”
7. Exit stage left. The Nuggets are wasting no time with exit interviews, holding those Thursday morning. We will obviously have you covered with all the newsy items and scenes from that day, and will have a consistent dose of stories in the craziest offseason in sports. Appreciate everybody following along during my rookie season on this beat. It’s been a blast, and I can’t wait to sharpen and expand our coverage even more next season.