DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic only had a basic outline of his offseason plans: Rest, work out in Denver, return home to Serbia and rest some more.
It’s not more elaborate since the Nuggets big man figured he’d be working for a while longer.
The Nuggets won six more games than a year ago and yet finished in the same position — a spot out of the playoffs. This season even came down to a winner-take-all scenario in Minnesota, where the Nuggets came up short in overtime to miss out on the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
“I’m not mad. I’m not sad, because I think we played good,” Jokic said Thursday. “We’re not making the playoffs because we were not focused the whole season, every game.”
Still, the Nuggets won six straight down the stretch to climb into contention for a spot, before losing to the Timberwolves in a spirited game.
“If we play with that sense of urgency that we did at the end, then we wouldn’t have even been in this position,” Will Barton said. “It’s all a part of growing.”
Veteran Richard Jefferson had a succinct message to the team.
“Embrace the pain,” Jefferson said. “The pain is what makes it good.”
Soon after, he slung a plastic garbage bag crammed with all his gear over his shoulder and playfully sang “On the Road Again” as he sauntered down the hallway.
This is a team that’s steadily on the rise under third-year coach Michael Malone, going from 33 wins in 2015-16, to 40 last season and now 46.
“I’ll continue to think about, going into next year, how I can get better next season. What do I have to do as a head coach and a leader to help this team move from being a ninth seed and out of the playoffs with 46 wins to being a playoff team?” Malone said. “Next year is a year we have to make that jump.”
Denver had its share of health issues this season, with Paul Millsap missing 44 games after suffering a left wrist injury that required surgery. Jokic was sidelined six games with a sprained left ankle, and Gary Harris missed 11 contests due to a strained right knee, before returning with two remaining.
“Through it all, I’m still optimistic and feel comfortable with where we’re at,” said Millsap, who signed a $90 million, three-year deal last summer. “Still wish we were still playing. But I’m still happy about our guys and where we’re at.”
Things to know following a season in which the Nuggets went 31-10 at the Pepsi Center and 15-26 on the road:
Barton did a little bit of everything for the Nuggets, from coming in off the bench to starting, from playing two-guard to small forward. A free agent this summer, Barton hopes to be back next season.
“We’re building something real special here,” Barton said.
MURRAY & MALONE
Jamal Murray’s dad pushes him. John Calipari, his coach at Kentucky, pushes him. So Malone can, too.
“I don’t think he realizes how hard he can get on me, how hard he can push me and demand stuff from me,” said Murray , who turned in quite a second season as he transitioned to point guard.
No joke, Murray said he wants his 3-point shooting percentage (37.8 this season) to match his free throw percentage (90.5).
Jokic was one of the most dominating big men in the league, averaging 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists. He also had 10 triple-doubles.
No wonder Malone is all for signing him to a long-term deal.
“As soon as possible, sign that kid up,” Malone said.
Although Millsap came back in late February, his wrist wasn’t close to 100 percent. He said doctors told him it will be sore for up to a year.
“I still went out there and gave it all I could,” said Millsap , whose team went 24-20 in his absence.
THIS & THAT
Forward Kenneth Faried didn’t get into a game after nearly 10 minutes on Feb. 1.
… The 37-year-old Jefferson on his future: “It’s not whether or not I’m here.
It’s whether or not I’ll be playing basketball.” … Guard Devin Harris averaged 8.2 points after being acquired in February. … Forward Torrey Craig donned a cap Thursday that had one word on it — “Salty.” Mood of the team? “It’s tough on all the guys,” Craig said of missing the postseason.
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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