Lottery Teams Collide in Denver: Who Needs the Final Four?

What's it like to attend an NBA game in April between two non-playoff teams during the Final Four? We went to the Pepsi Center for Kings-Nuggets to capture the moment and report back on who, if anyone, still cares on the court and in the stands.

If an inconsequential NBA game is played in an empty arena on the same night as the Final Four, does it make a sound?

Welcome to the physical manifestation of counter-programming.

Source: Dan Fatigato

I was there, along with a listed 15,606 (LOL) other NBA die-hards/lost souls, so the empty arena comment was admittedly a touch hyperbolic. But the lack of buzz was palpable, on a night when most of America's sports fans trained their eyes on the NCAA Final Four. The air was taken out of this game even further with the Kings leaving DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo at home. Those in attendance hoping to rubberneck at the car-crash Kings would leave disappointed. This watered-down Kings team figured out a way to win the game, 115-106, but the final score was an afterthought here. I was more intrigued by everything else. Who would play hard vs. who would be checked out mentally? Would there be any energy in the arena? How much attention would players pay to coaches during timeouts? How much unintentional comedy would we enjoy? Would Michael Malone try to embarrass the team that fired him if the Nuggets jumped out to a lead? Give me some April Madness.

But first, we need to level-set the current professional sports environment in the Mile High City. The Broncos just won the Super Bowl. The Avalanche are in a desperate playoff chase. Rockies baseball starts today. So to say the Nuggets are currently an afterthought in town would be an understatement. The Nugs rank dead-last in attendance this season, defying the efforts of the team's apparent number-padding in the official attendance count. The Pepsi Center seats around 19,000 people and there's no way it was 80 percent full Saturday night. On the plus side? I can't recall a more hassle-free parking situation at a pro sports arena.

If you have an NBA-dependence problem like I do then the matchup was indeed compelling. Skeptics, hear me out. Both teams have been out of the playoff conversation for months and have near-identical poor records, but they occupy completely different states of being. The Kings had playoff aspirations that were actually realistic in January, before imploding astonishingly in a toxic mix of Boogie, Rondo, George Karl and Vlade Divac. The Nuggets never had postseason dreams yet can look back on their 2015-16 season as a net-positive. They have a good first-year coach in Malone, they developed integral young talent without losing key assets and, hell, they even beat the Warriors. The Kings are mired in uncertainty and apathy. The Nuggets have hope and a plan for the future.

A basic tenet of that plan is to transition the team from its traditional run-and-gun style to become more of a hard-nosed defense-first crew. This meaningless, late-season game totally betrayed that notion. Their interior defense was woeful against the Kings, leading the guy in front of me to use the phrase "matador defense" multiple times and then having to explain what that meant to his young son. See, watching losing teams in April has educational value! Even without Cousins the Kings scored at will inside all night. The immortal Kosta Koufos (13 points) punished the Nuggets' big men with a series of post moves and hook shots. Seth Curry drove past his man unimpeded several times for easy layups while Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne watched idly. Curry was maybe the most impressive player on the floor, channeling his much more famous brother with an outside stroke that matched his consistent finishing at the rim. He put up 17 points and five assists, on 7-10 shooting. 

My wife - a devout Stephen Curry fan - when asked during the game if she had love for the scorching-hot little brother: "Nope." Poor Seth.

The Nuggets also conceded a big game to Rudy Gay (25 points, 9 rebounds), who proved once again he has the ability to be the perfect stretch-4, but only when nothing's at stake. In fact, every King that played minus Quincy Acy put up double-digit points. Accordingly, no Nugget had a better defensive rating than 112. Overall the Nuggets' defense has been OK this season, but they couldn't summon the effort to stop the Kings' B Team on this April night. On the defensive end at least, the Nuggets' minds were on summer vacation plans. The lack of defensive effort wasn't surprising as I scanned the bench during timeouts. Players that weren't in the immediate vicinity of Malone split their time between dancing, goofing off and watching mascot Rocky sink backward half-court shots.

IMG_0276 from Dan Fatigato on Vimeo.

An 82-game season is demanding and when a team's non-playoff fate is sealed, it can be easy for everyone to lose a bit of focus. Players, coaches, cheerleaders. Here's a clip of Gary Harris nearly being run over by the Nuggets dancers before pre-game introductions, then slinking bashfully back to the bench:

IMG_0266 from Dan Fatigato on Vimeo.

Offensively the Nuggets played well through the first three quarters and played with more pride. Rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay got into the flow of the game early on by setting up teammates for easy buckets, like this sweet pass to Kenneth Faried: 

IMG_0268 from Dan Fatigato on Vimeo.

Mudiay ended the night with 15 points and six assists, hitting a couple of threes along the way. I wasn't blown away upon seeing him up close for the first time, but his effort was encouraging. It surprised me to find out later that he was just 6-17 from the field on the night, another inefficient display that has become all-too-familiar. His summer homework assignment will be shooting, shooting and some more shooting. He also tends to try to force the issue with predictably ugly results, as seen here. Some more unintentional comedy for your enjoyment as well:

IMG_0275 from Dan Fatigato on Vimeo.

Fellow rookie Nikola Jokic managed just six points, but collected 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Harris scored 19 on efficient shooting. It's a good sign that the Nuggets' three young building blocks - Mudiay, Jokic, Harris - are playing out these remaining games with energy and production. Also among the try-hard All-Stars were JaKarr Sampson (9 points) and Axel Toupane (14), two guys gunning for long-term opportunities with the team. The masked man Lauvergne saved all his energy for offense, scoring 15 points while posting a 123 defensive rating. Nurkic was just sort of there. Seeing his size and mobility in person makes me want to project greatness onto him, but he didn't do all that much on either end. He did inspire a fantastic sign by a female fan that read, "Jusuf Nurkic's body is 65% water and I'm thirsty." I'm nauseous.

Faried is clearly the most popular player on the team, eliciting the loudest pre-game introduction cheers and playing to the crowd with two vicious blocks. However, he seems to be getting phased out by the coaching staff. Manimal played just 16 minutes against the Kings and may be a better trade chip than long-term piece of the Nuggets' core. His popularity among fans may be enough to keep him in a Denver uniform, though, as ownership looks at attendance numbers and decides not to jettison one of the few recognizable players on the team. They need to at least be willing to listen to offers for the 26-year old power forward. After all, he didn't generate half the cheers from a mostly muted crowd that Rocky did. The mascot was in playoff form all night and carries a considerably smaller cap hold than the Manimal:

IMG_0272 from Dan Fatigato on Vimeo.

Back to the action on the floor, the Nuggets clung to a tenuous 4-point lead as the 4th quarter began. That's when the bottom fell out. Denver went 6-23 from the floor and were outscored 31-18 in the final frame. Malone wouldn't be getting more revenge on the team that fired him on this night. But the joke's on Sacramento - with the Nuggets' low-key tanking in the 4th, they picked up a game on the Kings in the race for extra Lottery balls and increased the chance that the Kings would lose their pick to Chicago. The Kings won the dubious battle, but the Nuggets - with their intact coach, key players under long-term team control, 2-3 1st Round picks and ample cap space - win the war.

As for me and my fellow Pepsi Center denizens? Upon exiting I heard someone mention the lopsided scores of the Final Four games, and a word came to mind that summed up the rest of America: "Suckers."

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