Even in an analytically-driven, statistically-centric age of basketball, there’s no mathematical formula to measure confidence. You can’t calculate it, you can’t quantify it, you just know it when you see it.
For much of last season, Denver didn’t have that confidence. The confidence late in games to close out quality opponents or the confidence to stick to their game plan on both ends of the floor for the full 48 minutes. A year ago, the Nuggets went 5-10 in games decided by five points or less and in what NBA.com defines as the “clutch,” when the margin is five points or less with five minutes remaining, Denver went just 16-24.
But from coaches to players, there’s a sense that something is different about this year’s version of the Nuggets. That was evident in their 102-94 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night — Denver’s biggest win of the young season and one of the more significant wins of the Michael Malone era.
“It was a big win, it definitely was a big win,” Will Barton said from his locker behind a pair of jet-black shades after a 13-point night off Denver’s bench. “I just felt like last year this was a game we would have lost, a nailbiter coming down to the end. I just felt like we dropped a lot of those games last year and this year, there’s a different vibe, there’s a different energy and I don’t feel like we’re going to lose those type of games right now. And that’s a good feeling to have.”
It’s early and teams are still figuring themselves out, like Denver’s opponent Friday who’s now lost four-straight. The Thunder and Raptors, who were victims of the Nuggets’ second most impressive victory this season a week-and-a-half ago, aren’t finished products and probably won’t be until around Christmas or in the Thunder’s case with so many new additions, much later.
However, it was clear against the Thunder and in Denver’s 95-94 win over the Heat last week that Denver’s self-belief, especially late in games is growing.
“I sense in our locker room, on the bench, watching guys on the court, there is a confidence growing within this group that they are starting to believe, not that we can be a good team, but we can be a really good team,” Malone told reporters after the win.
In the five games this season that qualify as a “clutch” situation per NBA.com, Denver is 3-2 and have outscored opponents by one point — a healthy improvement from last year’s -19 differential in those situations.
Ask Nuggets’ players what has changed at the end of games from last season to now, and why things may feel different this year and they’ll point to a number of topics.
Some, like starting shooting guard Gary Harris will say signing Paul Millsap this summer is a big reason why. Barton also agrees that Millsap is somewhat behind the new late-game vibes that are bouncing off the walls of Denver’s locker room.
“Bringing in a guy like Paul who’s a veteran, he’s been in a winning atmosphere, he knows how to pull those games out,” Barton said.
Denver’s also a year older and a year wiser. Jamal Murray is now well into his second NBA season. Emmanuel Mudiay, who had arguably his best game in a Nuggets’ uniform against the Thunder when he scored a team-high 21 points on 8-10 shooting, is in his third year. Harris and Nikola Jokic are still young by league standards but are becoming more consistent as well.
“We’re growing up,” Barton proclaimed.
Against the Thunder, Denver held a five-point lead with just under three minutes remaining. On the Nuggets’ next possession, Millsap turned the ball over. Then, Russell Westbrook drained a 26-footer to draw Oklahoma City to within three as flashbacks to last season’s elimination game that concluded with a Westbrook buzzer-beating trey ensued.
Instead of playing keep-away and milking the shot clock for every last second before hoisting up a low percentage prayer, Denver kept pushing forward.
Millsap converted a momentum-turning three-point play. Barton then attacked the Thunder’s defense and got to the line where he converted two free-throws. Jokic corralled an offensive rebound a short while later and converted the putback before two more free-throws from Denver’s $90 million closer, who also finished with six blocks, ended the Thunder’s night.
Denver kept the pedal to the floor on offense late in the fourth quarter but also locked in defensively. The Nuggets held Oklahoma City to 3-10 shooting over the game’s last five minutes.
“We didn’t play not to lose,” Malone said. “We stayed aggressive. We kept pressure on them and that’s really big because I think when you get tentative down the stretch, that’when things kind of fall apart.”
“I sense in our locker room, on the bench, watching guys on the court, there is a confidence growing within this group that they are starting to believe, not that we can be a good team, but we can be a really good team,” Malone continued.
At 7-5, Denver finds themselves in a good spot. They’re just about one basket per game outside of a top-10 offense and the fact that they were able to score 102 points on the Thunder — the league’s second-best defense — speaks volumes. The Nuggets could also go 5-1 on their current six-game homestand with a win over the Orlando Magic on Saturday — a potential record that was unanimously viewed as a best-case scenario heading into this stretch of games.
The Nuggets must keep pressing ahead too. The Western Conference isn’t falling off this season and teams that once appeared primed to play the lottery and fall out of the playoffs like the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz both look like they’ll be in contention for a postseason spot into the final weeks of the regular season.
Yet, Denver has displayed something over this homestand and so far this season that’s different than last year. Whether it’s increased confidence, more poise at the end of games or just a newfound belief in what they’re trying to do on the floor night-to-night, it’s impossible to quantify. But it’s there.
“It’s kind of different. It’s just a different feeling,” Barton said. “I feel like guys just want to win. I feel like everyone’s sacrificing for the team.”