DENVER — Michael Malone thought of his father, legendary coach Brendan Malone, who recently passed away. The son wished his dad could have been at Ball Arena on Tuesday night to witness it all, the moment each of them wanted. Jamal Murray said the celebration of a championship was a lot better than he thought it would be. He, of course, was itching to just get to real basketball. And collectively, it was a great moment for the Denver Nuggets, watching a banner go high into the rafters.
Christian Braun and DeAndre Jordan allowed reporters to see and examine the bulky rings after the Nuggets took care of the Los Angeles Lakers in a 119-107 win before a sold-out and animated crowd. And the crowd, well, toward the end of Denver’s first win of the season, it chanted, “Who’s your daddy?” at the Lakers, an ode to a little trash talk from the championship parade in June.
For sure, there were plenty of extras Tuesday night as the curtain rose on another NBA season. But if there’s a message to be sent to the league, it’s this: These Denver Nuggets are for real, as if the championship they just won wasn’t enough of a hint. They are not a one-hit wonder. And whatever happens in this NBA season, these Nuggets are going to have a strong say in the outcome.
“We had our moment,” Murray said. “And then we went right back to work. We did a great job of staying in the moment when the moment was there, and then getting ourselves right for the game. We played the right way. The ball was hopping, it was moving in the right spots. We played really well, and I thought we were able to do a good job of making it right.”
During training camp and preseason, the Nuggets tried to send the message of being fully capable of winning another championship this season. They have been open about it. They haven’t been really brash. Just matter-of-fact. It’s more than just a desire to add another trophy to the mantel. It’s the belief they are fully capable of getting it done.
Denver has believed this even amid questions of how the Nuggets planned on replacing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, key cogs of the rotation of yesteryear. The Nuggets believed this as they looked around the league and saw teams like the Phoenix Suns, Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics loading up over the offseason in free agency. Denver’s been afforded plenty of respect from the preseason prognosticators. But, that being said, the competition around the league figures to present a big challenge to these Nuggets.
Got our rings ✅
Got the win ✅ pic.twitter.com/mgsSnKLnyv
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) October 25, 2023
Here’s the thing: Nobody has Denver’s starting five. Nobody. It’s almost impossible to duplicate the experience the Nuggets have playing with each other, combined with the high-end ceiling of Murray and Nikola Jokic. There isn’t a starting five that can duplicate the versatility that Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provide around Jokic and Murray, or has the wild card that is Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets move the ball with aplomb. They are exceedingly selfless, and that starts with their two best players. When you watch them on the floor, they look like a team that carries championship swagger.
This is why Tuesday night’s game wasn’t particularly close. Sure, it got close on the scoreboard a couple of times. Sure, the Lakers closed within 90-86 with about eight minutes remaining. But two things were central to the outcome. The Nuggets smoked Los Angeles whenever LeBron James wasn’t on the floor, and James played only 29 minutes. And whenever Denver needed a big basket, it was able to come up with one.
“I think we controlled the game the entire time,” Jokic said. “They made a few runs at us and they got it close. But I think we did a good job of staying together, and we were able to come back and make the plays needed to win the game.”
You can typically win a title doing one of two things in the NBA. You can be the Miami Heat and collect the best talent available, or you can have perfect symmetry among a bunch of good players. Denver is a champion and a potential champion again because it has both. Jokic is the best player in the world, and he put up a 29-point triple-double Tuesday night without seemingly breaking a sweat. But the Nuggets also got 21 points and six assists from Murray and 20 points from Caldwell-Pope.
The Nuggets shot 52 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range. But on the other side of the basketball, they squeezed the Lakers whenever it mattered. Among Los Angeles players, only James and Taurean Prince truly played well. Anthony Davis, in addition to getting cooked by Jokic’s offense, went scoreless in the second half after scoring 17 points in the first. D’Angelo Russell shot the Lakers out of rhythm several times, and Austin Reaves struggled with his shot and decision-making for much of the night.
“I thought our defense was good overall, and I thought our half-court defense was great,” Malone said. “But as a group, our transition defense needs a lot of improvement. It wasn’t where we needed it to be. But overall, we had guys flying around defensively, and I thought Nikola did a much better job in the second half of guarding Anthony Davis.”
The Nuggets didn’t set out Tuesday night to send a message to the rest of the league. But they might have done so anyway with their level of play. On ring night, on a night each of them will forever remember, the Nuggets looked like an oiled machine once we got to actual basketball. And after an opening-night win, Malone could be seen in the locker room speaking to newcomer Justin Holiday and then displaying a fist that revealed the ring on his finger.
It was as smooth a night as the Nuggets could have asked for. And it was a night when they immediately established themselves as a team to beat, once again.
“Tonight was special for us,” Jokic said. “I missed the guys that are not there with us anymore. But we as a group, we’re going to be remembered for a long time. We’re going to be remembered as champions. I think that’s a really nice moment in life.”
(Photo: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)