Denver Nuggets won't let one bizarre loss mask their status as legit contenders in the West

Late in the third quarter of Sunday afternoon's game between the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, things were going according to plan for the NBA's hottest team.

Denver, which had won eight straight since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the NBA's trade deadline last month, led by 10 when Nikola Jokic checked out of the game with 1:13 remaining in the third, and the Nuggets seemed well on their way to a ninth straight victory in a game they seemed to have completely under control.

That was the case, at least, until it wasn't.

"I remember going out in the third quarter with like three minutes left, and we were up 14," Denver forward Michael Porter Jr. said afterward. "And then, all of a sudden, they were up 10.

"I don't even remember how it turned around like that."

It's hard to blame Porter for claiming amnesia to explain away what happened over the final 13-plus minutes of Sunday afternoon's proceedings, a 105-87 Boston victory in which the underwhelming Celtics outscored Denver 36-8 from the moment Jokic checked out until the final buzzer -- including a 31-8 advantage in the fourth quarter.

Denver couldn't hit a shot, couldn't get a stop defensively and couldn't stop arguing with the referees -- led by Jokic, the favorite to win this year's Most Valuable Player award, who got yanked from the game by Nuggets coach Mike Malone with a little more than four minutes remaining and the Nuggets trailing by a manageable 12 points after going after the referees for consecutive possessions prior to a timeout.

"Regarding Nikola, he gets frustrated with the referees and what he perceives to be a lack of calls, and you understand that," Malone said. "But that can never take you away from your duty as a basketball player. So that's something that he, myself and all of us can definitely be better at."

Malone made a point of saying on several occasions that Denver was in the middle of a stretch of six games in nine nights, and that guard Jamal Murray (knee) missed a fourth straight game. But the under-riding message from the coach to his star was obvious: If Denver is to be a true championship contender, both Jokic individually and his teammates collectively need to keep their composure in a much sturdier way than they did Sunday.

And, Sunday's result aside, it's perfectly reasonable for Malone to have those expectations for this team. During Denver's eight-game winning streak, it had outscored teams by more than 10 points per 100 possessions and had the league's highest offensive rating (120.6), per NBA.com's stats page. The Nuggets' new starting lineup -- Murray, Gordon, Porter, Jokic and Will Barton -- has outscored its opponents by a staggering 61 points in 90 minutes on the floor together across four games, with Gordon providing every bit of the passing and cutting offensively, combined with the defensive size and versatility on the wing, that the Nuggets hoped he would when they swung a deal with the Orlando Magic to acquire him.

As a result, Denver has quickly ascended from fighting to avoid a spot in the play-in games to having a chance at hosting a first-round playoff series, while Jokic has cemented himself as the favorite to win the league's top individual honor.

All of that, though, made the way Sunday's game played out all the more notable -- including Jokic notably showing no interest in joining a late huddle after Malone yanked him from the game.

"I think the whole 30 teams are complaining and whining," Jokic said, when asked whether he thought Denver got caught up in its complaints with the officials. "We are just one of them. It's just how the game goes. They're doing their job. We need to do our job. Sometimes it's miscommunication, like arguments, of course, like in every job."

Ultimately, Sunday's game shouldn't mean anything more than the eight that came before it. Even for the best teams, such games happen during the course of an NBA season. When they checked back into the game in the fourth quarter, Jokic, Gordon and Malone were all plus-15 while they were on the court in a game Denver trailed by eight -- due to Monte Morris, Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green and PJ Dozier all being minus-22 or worse for the game.

In the playoffs, bench units become less of an issue. The return of Murray -- who is in the midst of his best season, finally shooting better than 40% from 3-point range after his pyrotechnics during last year's playoffs inside the NBA's bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando -- will certainly help, too.

But after last year's run to the Western Conference finals, and after the trade for Gordon, the days of Denver being happy just to make the playoffs are long in the past. The Nuggets are one of five teams -- along with both tenants at Staples Center, the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz -- that rightly believe they can escape from the gauntlet that is going to be the Western Conference playoffs, and make it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

It left Malone ready to get back on the court 24 hours later in San Francisco to try to get the bad taste from Sunday out of his team's collective mouth.

"We have to be better," he said. "They turned up the heat, got into us, switched everything, and we allowed that to kill our offensive flow, and then we started complaining and whining, not getting back. Not competing.

"[But] the best thing about the NBA is we get on a plane this afternoon, go to Golden State and try to right the ship and play at a much higher level than we played today."

The good thing for the Nuggets is that they won't have to think too hard, or for too long, to remember just how well they had been playing up until Sunday's inexplicable meltdown.