Nuggets win to get No. 2 seed in West, face winner of Pelicans-Lakers in Round 1 of playoffs

Bennett Durando, The Denver Post on

Published in Basketball

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As he so often does, Michael Malone captured the feeling of the entire Nuggets fanbase.

“I’m kind of all over the place right now,” he said at noon MT, while countless fans were surely talking themselves through all the NBA playoff scenarios one last time before Game 82.

Malone was acutely aware of the most likely outcome: That his team would be the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference when the dust settled, win or lose. But he was set on playing his starters anyway, on the off chance Denver could — at least — move up one spot.

“We’re trying to win a game,” he said.

The defending champions took care of business on their end, clobbering the injury-devastated Grizzlies 126-111 to end the 2023-24 regular season Sunday. And thanks to the Phoenix Suns’ win over the Timberwolves, Denver (57-25) will go into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the West, facing the winner of a play-in game between the Lakers and Pelicans.

With the bounce-back win after a nightmare in San Antonio, the Nuggets tied the franchise single-season wins record, equaling their 2012-13 season.

“We wanted to get a win, and we wanted to just be positive, have a positive mindset going into the playoffs,” Nikola Jokic said. “I think that’s important.”

“It’s still unfortunate we didn’t break the record,” Malone said. “We had a chance to.”

Six players scored in double figures by the end of the third quarter, led by Jamal Murray’s 21-point finale. Murray turned his ankle during the second frame but declined when Malone asked if he wanted a substitution. Denver’s entire starting lineup, including Murray, started the second half after getting a look at the other relevant scores around the West. The Lakers, Suns and Thunder all led by double digits.

“I think our whole staff was looking at their phones, to be honest,” Malone said.

It was an ideal scenario — as long as the Nuggets didn’t get in their own way, like they did occasionally throughout a too-close-for-comfort first half. The Grizzlies were down an astronomical 13 players, according to their injury report.

So the halftime message from Malone to players? “Phoenix is up 14. If you want the 2-seed, go take it.”


The third quarter was definitive. Denver opened up a 26-point advantage after leading by single digits until late in the second. Nikola Jokic finished his presumptive MVP season with 15 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and four steals. Aaron Gordon supplied 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and a block. Christian Braun had 17 points, nine boards and two steals off the bench, sustaining his individual momentum into the playoffs.

Malone was able to manage minutes in the end. Jokic played 30, Gordon played 26, and the rest of the roster played fewer than 25.

For the second time in his career, Jokic finished the season ranked in the top-five in the NBA in total points (fifth), total rebounds (third) and total assists (second).

Unlike in San Antonio, the Nuggets got their sloppy moments out of the way early this time. At one point early in the non-Jokic minutes, Memphis had 11 offensive rebounds to Denver’s 12 defensive rebounds. Malone used a timeout after the Grizzlies briefly took a lead. Then Braun and Peyton Watson scored the next seven. The Nuggets never looked back.

They finished the regular season with just five losses against teams with losing records. They went 24-17 on the road.

They woke up Sunday with the ability to manipulate the final standings if they were dead-set on being No. 3 anyway. By resting starters and potentially losing, they could have ushered Oklahoma City to their side of the bracket and Minnesota to the opposite side.

Instead, they took a risk and didn’t rest. It paid off.

“We were jus trying to focus on ourselves,” Jokic said.

Malone didn’t like the premise of losing for some subjective idea of an easier path to the NBA Finals anyway. “The basketball gods are finicky gods,” Pistons coach Monty Williams used to tell him when they both worked in New Orleans.

“Especially this year in the Western Conference,” Malone said. “Who are you avoiding? Hey, we’re gonna avoid this team to play that team? Every team is loaded.”


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