Nuggets narrowly miss playoffs, but find cornerstone in Nikola Jokic

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DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic had absolutely no clue about his final stats until an assistant coach informed him a day after the season ended. No idea whatsoever. Not his points (16.7). Not his rebounds (9.8). Not his assists (4.9).

The Denver Nuggets big man preferred not knowing, so he didn’t get hung up on numbers.

That sort of focus might’ve worked wonders for the youthful Nuggets down the stretch as they narrowly lost out to Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.

“The playoff (chase) was too much pressure for us,” Jokic said Thursday after the team missed the postseason for a fourth straight season. “Every game, it’s like, `Oh, the playoffs – if we lose this, we’re not going to make the playoffs.’… Just play the game as normal.”

Still, the Nuggets (40-42) improved by seven games over a season ago. This despite using 32 different lineups and finishing 3-12 in games where they were behind by one or tied in the final minute, according to research on

“For us to make the run we did, with all the injuries we had, all the young players we were playing, was remarkable,” said coach Michael Malone , whose team was eliminated from playoff contention Sunday on Russell Westbrook‘s long 3-pointer at the buzzer in Oklahoma City’s win.

Even more, the Nuggets found the centerpiece to build around in Jokic , who recorded six triple-doubles. General manager Tim Connelly said the 6-foot-10 Serbian is on the brink of becoming a transcendent player.

First, though, some rest.

Jokic’s exhausted after a long season on the heels of helping his country earn a silver medal at the Rio Olympics last summer.

“I’m going to take this break,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 whose standout play made it possible to trade bruiser Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers for Mason Plumlee in February. “It’s going to be nice for me.”

Danilo Gallinari certainly likes the direction the team is headed, especially given the emergence of Jokic, sharp-shooting rookie Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

“One of the positive things, for example, is the talent and the number of young guys that we have,” Gallinari said. “They are very good players and it’s something the franchise can build on.”

Whether Gallinari sticks around in Denver for next season is a different story. He could opt out of his deal and explore free agency.

“It’s not time right now to make the decision,” said Gallinari, who was acquired in the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in 2011. “Right now, it’s time to digest the fact we were not able to accomplish the goal (of the playoffs) that I had, that we had, at the beginning of the season.

“After that, it’s time to go on vacation for a little bit, rest the body.”

Here are some takeaways from Denver’s season:

DESERVING HONOR: Murray believes he belongs on the all-rookie team after being one of Denver’s top outside threats. “I feel like I’m one of the better rookies in the class,” said Murray, the seventh overall pick out of Kentucky. “Got a chance to prove it.”

MILE HIGH LOVE: While the lure of testing free agency is attractive to Gallinari, so is returning to a city he loves. “I have a house here. After my career, Denver is going to be my city. It’s very tough for me to leave. We’ll see,” Gallinari said.

LEARNING LESSON: After missing time with lower back pain, point guard Emmanuel Mudiay found it difficult to get minutes. The seventh overall pick in 2015 turned in several strong games down the stretch after being demoted. “I became a better player,” Mudiay said. “Not saying I want to miss games, but when I did miss games, sit back and watch and look … see what you can do better.”

UP AND DOWN: Harris developed into a pivotal player after being bothered by a strained groin early, and then a foot injury. He averaged 14.9 points. “Gary’s ascension has kind of been understated,” Connelly said. “He really turned into a special player at the two-guard.”

ABILITY TO CHANGE: The Nuggets were all about going with a big lineup at the start of the season. After the emergence of Jokic, they switched gears and ran things through him. “He’s got a lot of unique tools,” Connelly said. “Offensively, he almost plays a near-perfect brand of basketball.”

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Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.

LeBron James on NBA play-in tournament: “No, no, no. That’s wack.”

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It’s a long way off, but there has been some discussion in the league office — and some momentum built up in some corners — for a play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs. While multiple variations of how this would work are in play, it involves some combination of teams seeded seven to 10 in a few single-elimination (or home-and-home) games to see who gets into the 16-team playoffs. The goal is to keep more teams — and more fan bases — engaged in the playoff chase longer.

LeBron James is not a fan. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“No, no, no,” James said Wednesday. “That’s wack. That’s wack. Why? You got to earn your spot to be in the postseason. No consolation for finishing last. That’s corny. That’s corny. That’s wack. To play for what? What are they playing for?”

So, how do you really feel?

“[Make the playoffs by winning the tournament], even if my record is better than yours? Nah, that’s wack,” James said.

As fans, we love drama and unpredictability — it’s what we love about March Madness, the upsets that ruin our bracket — and a play-in tournament would bring some to the often predictable NBA table.

However, LeBron has a point. Using the Western Conference and the current standings as an example, how excited are fans and the front offices of the Jazz and Nuggets going to be about an extra game or two for the right to get smacked down by Houston in the first round? Or for the Timberwolves to maybe be out after a game where they lose to the Clippers in a play-in, rather than getting to take on Golden State? Will this really sell well?

The only way this gets backing of most players and the union is if it could help shorten the season — if television and other revenue from these games allowed the 82 game season to drop to 72 (or whatever) and keep the money the same, then players would listen. However, that much money seems unlikely.

Maybe a mid-season NBA Tournament held in one city could generate the needed revenue to shorten the season. Maybe. But that seems more likely than a play-in.

Kyle Korver to miss Wednesday vs. Toronto after death of his brother

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I can’t imagine what this is like.

Cavaliers’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver will not be with the Cavaliers for an interesting showdown with Toronto on Wednesday night due to the death of his younger brother, Kirk. Korver has been given a leave of absence from the team.

Kirk Korver, 27, played four years of college ball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

There are four Korver brothers, all of whom played college basketball or at a higher level. Kirk was the youngest of them, he reportedly fell seriously ill about a week ago.

Our thoughts are with the entire Korver family.

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