ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — Everyone knew this was a transitional year for the Nuggets, who added a new coach and rookie point guard, and in that sense there hasn’t been any surprises. The Nuggets are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and the rest of the season is devoted to see who stays and who goes before next season.
But their 30th win game in smashing fashion Wednesday when Emmanuel Mudiay, who’s had shooting issues for much of the season, allowed the Nuggets to escape a potentially embarrassing home loss to the Sixers. His body-twisting shot from just inside the half court stripe beat the buzzer and for a struggling team, it was just what the basketball doctors ordered.
It’s been a typical peak-valley rookie season for Mudiay. He won’t be in the running for Rookie of the Year, as some expected when the season began, and there remains some question as to whether he’s a natural point guard. But he has steadily improved; in March he’s averaging 16.6 points, 5.2 assists and just over three rebounds. He’s not as turnover prone, either. Even better, Mudiay is hitting a respectable 40 percent; in December his shooting percentage was 25 percent.
Mike Malone has shown great patience with Mudiay and is allowing the teenager to play through his mistakes, which is exactly as it should be; Denver wants Mudiay to be much more polished when it finally surrounds him with better talent. This is precisely the season to allow him to find his way through the NBA, because from a win-loss standpoint, it’s a throwaway year.
Mudiay finished with 27 points against the Sixers, and speaking of Philly, the gang still needs to win one of its remaining games to avoid tying the single-season futility mark.
DIFFICULTY: The Sixers had the ball and a one-point lead with just over three seconds left and Robert Covington was immediately fouled after receiving an inbounds pass. He missed the first free throw, though, leaving the door open. Because the Nuggets had no more timeouts, Darrell Arthur had to inbounds the ball underneath his own basket, rather than having the ball advanced. But: His half-court pass to Mudiay was money, and after dribbling off his knee and collecting himself, Mudiay shot an off-balanced jumper over TJ McConnell.
GAME SITUATION: Give the Nuggets props for not caving. Here’s what Malone said after the Nuggets’ loss in Cleveland a few days earlier: “I thought in the second half we quit. I haven’t seen that from our team for most of the year. I was very disappointed.” Well, the youngsters redeemed themselves.
CELEBRATION: Mudiay reacted as how you’d expect from a teenager who’ll never forget this night. He sprinted to the Denver bench and did a body-bump with Mike Miller, who thankfully didn’t hurt himself on that jump. Then Mudiay absorbed some playful punches to the gut by Gary Harris, another youngster who’s having a season of solid growth. It was good to see the Nuggets having fun.
GRADE: No disrespect to Mudiay and the biggest shot of his professional life, but let’s put this in perspective here. Nothing special was on the line. The Nuggets are playing out the string, and this shot came against the Sixers. Let’s give it two Horrys.