Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press file photo
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press file photo
DENVER – The Denver Nuggets are one-and-done in the NBA playoffs again. Only this ouster has a much different feel.
The young team grew up in a hurry in taking the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers to the brink before losing a thrilling Game 7 on Saturday night at Staples Center.
They even impressed Kobe Bryant, who said the Nuggets “showed a lot of heart.”
Along with plenty of promise.
Ty Lawson established himself as a bona fide difference-maker, and joining him with flashes of brilliance at various points were rookie Kenneth Faried, speedster Corey Brewer, forward Danilo Gallinari, big man JaVale McGee, guard Arron Afflalo and center Timofey Mozgov.
Al Harrington and Andre Miller provided the veteran leadership, and they nearly pulled off the upset.
“I’m proud of the team,” coach George Karl said. “I’ve never been in a locker room after the season where every guy in front of me I’m happy with and I’m content with. We’re staying with the same crew and going to work next year.”
Well, not entirely.
Miller is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he suggested after the game that if he’s going to be a backup like he was this season for the first time in his stellar career, it might as well be with a championship contender.
The Nuggets aren’t quite there yet.
But they are showing signs of moving in the right direction after general manager Masai Ujiri’s second major makeover in 15 months brought in the raw but promising McGee – who will be a restricted free agent this summer – in place of Nenę, the oft-injured big Brazilian who never seemed productive or healthy enough to get the Nuggets over the hump.
Denver has advanced past the first round just once since 2003, but this time they’re building with a young core that’s sure to benefit from the stretched-out series that was knotted up at three games each and tied 78-all with 6:27 left Saturday night before the Lakers’ big men secured the 97-88 win.
The Nuggets trailed by 16 midway through the third quarter before going on a 27-7 run with a small lineup against the Lakers’ star-studded cast of Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Andrew Bynum and Steve Blake to take a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
It didn’t last, and the Lakers advanced to the second-round against Oklahoma City, while the Nuggets went home as first-round fodder again.
“It’s tough,” Lawson said. “We played together and played as a team. Just the way it went down is kind of tough for us. We fought hard, and we showed a lot of energy. Next year we’re going to be even better.”
The Nuggets jumped out to a fast start this season but were done in by injuries and had to quickly adjust to McGee after Nenę was dealt at the trade deadline. They finished strong, securing the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
They were smoked twice in L.A. to start the series, then bounced back to win three of four and put a scare into the Lakers.
“We’ve been dealing with all the injuries and the trades, and this team just became so close-knit and tight,” said Harrington, who played through a bum knee down the stretch and a broken nose in the playoffs. “I think that’s the only reason we had a chance to get out of this series. We went in expecting to compete, to have a chance to win, but we really came together in this series and proved we could win.
“It’s only going to help us next year to be even better and even tougher.”
The Nuggets have plenty to build on and now the young core has a taste of the intensity playoff basketball brings.
“It was a valiant effort in the second half,” Karl said. “We had a lot of opportunities. The game was so physical, and I think their size won over our speed. We gave a great effort. We made them miss enough shots to win the game, but we just didn’t rebound the ball. And when you have two guys (in Gasol and Bynum) that put their mind to rebounding the ball, they’re (darn) good. I’m sure there are things we could have done better, but some of it is they’re (darn) good, too.”
Power won over pace, Karl said, and size beat out speed.
“We need to get stronger. We need to understand how to beat this type of team,” Karl said. “The numbers will say we were a push in rebounding, but we didn’t put ours back in the basket. They were laying theirs back in the basket.”
There was plenty to celebrate about this team, too.
“All year long, I enjoyed their belief that they could win when no one else believed in them,” Karl said. “From the (lack of a) closer to not having a star player and all the things written, I just think they’re pretty mentally tough for a young bunch of guys.
“They’re enjoyable to be around. They’re enjoyable to coach. I don’t think there are 30 NBA coaches saying that right now. In that sense, I’m blessed with a good situation. Their heart is bigger than people think it is.”