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Nuggets fifth straight NBA champ to falter in title repeat quest

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Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets vs Minnesota Timberwolves Game 7 NBA playoffs

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic reacts after being called for a foul in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA second-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER — As the shock of blowing their 20-point Game 7 lead settled in, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone repeated what had become somewhat of an underlying mantra for his talented but thinned team.

“I consider the San Antonio Spurs a dynasty, and they never won back-to-back,” said Malone, saluting the franchise that won NBA titles every other year between 2003 and 2007.

The Nuggets will have to try to follow that formula now that their quest to become the first repeat champion since Golden State in 2018 came to a screeching end Sunday night with their 98-90 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves and their rising superstar Anthony Edwards.

Jamal Murray bounced back from an elbow injury and a bad Game 6 with 35 points and three-time MVP Nikola Jokic had 34 points and 19 rebounds.

The duo combined for 32 second-half points but they got just five points from their supporting cast — a 3-pointer by Michael Porter Jr. and a bucket from Christian Braun, as the Wolves won for the third time in four games at Ball Arena.

READ: NBA: Nuggets’ title defense over after blowing 20-point lead in Game 7

Porter in particular was stifled by Minnesota’s stellar defense. After averaging 22.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers, MPJ was held to 11.3 points and 5.4 boards in Round 2.

Porter blamed himself for the Nuggets having to make earlier-than-expected summer vacation plans.

“There are a lot of things we could’ve done differently as a team,” Porter said. “But I know if I would’ve played my part, we would’ve won this series. And I’ve got to live with that.”

Porter entered these playoffs with a heavy heart after one brother was sentenced to six years in jail for vehicular homicide and another brother was banned from the NBA for life for his role in a gambling scandal.

“I’m not going to sit here and act like it wasn’t a burden and I wasn’t thinking about it all day every day,” Porter said. “But that’s still no excuse. I’m a better player than I played in this series. I’m a better shooter than I shot in this series. In the NBA, you have to be able to separate your off-the-court matters with your on-the-court-play.”

Had he been able to better deal with that — not to mention the Wolves’ swarming defense — Porter argues the Nuggets would be the ones preparing to host the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals this week instead of Minnesota.

READ: NBA: Timberwolves rally from 20 down to stun Nuggets in Game 7

Instead, they’re the fifth consecutive NBA champion to fail to make it out of the second round in their quest to defend their title.

“We knew it was hard,” Malone said. “It was something I talked to our team in training camp. The last team to do it was the ‘17-18 Warriors and with the rules being what they are now I think it’s going to become even harder and harder to repeat as champions.”

After losing key veterans Bruce Brown and Jeff Green in free agency following the franchise’s first NBA title last summer, general manager Calvin Booth’s options to restock the team were limited by new rules in the collective bargaining agreement that make it harder for high-priced teams such as the Nuggets to keep their core intact and also acquire veteran free agents.

Denver’s starting five made a combined $151.6 million this season, well over the $136 million salary cap before even accounting for the rest of the roster. So, instead of restocking with experienced veterans, the Nuggets decided to give minutes to young players such as Christian Braun and Peyton Watson while working in rookies Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson.

Meanwhile, all their pursuers got better, mainly through trades and free agency signings. Nine of the top 10 teams in the Western Conference won more games this season than they did a year ago, including the Nuggets, who tied a franchise record with 57 wins, four more than they had a year ago, but still slipped from the No. 1 seed to the No. 2.

Braun came on strong down the stretch and was a key player off the bench in the playoffs. Watson’s defensive prowess led to spectacular stretches but he didn’t earn Malone’s trust enough to be part of the playoff rotation.

Veterans Justin Holliday, Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan got postseason cameos while Strawther, Pickett and Hunter logged meager minutes against Minnesota.

The biggest difference in the series was Minnesota’s superior bench featuring Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid along with Kyle Anderson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Denver’s starters outscored Minnesota’s starters (565-551) in the series, but Minnesota’s reserves outscored Denver’s by a whopping 50 points — 168-118.

The Nuggets simply couldn’t buck the trend of the NBA producing a new champion every year since 2019. Being the hunted, Aaron Gordon noted, “is exhausting,” and Jokic worked so many taxing minutes against the Wolves’ three-center rotation that he mused about cloning himself.

Jokic said he’ll have to think long and hard about suiting up for Serbia at the Paris Olympics this summer. But Murray, who dealt with knee, calf, ankle, shin and elbow injuries this season, missing 23 games, said he’ll suit up for Team Canada.

Beyond that, Murray is already looking at chasing the NBA title again next season.



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“It’s back to being the hunter,” he said.





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