How the Nuggets Finally Climbed the Western Conference Mountain
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images. Pictured: Jamal Murray (Nuggets)
What you have to understand about these Nuggets is how many times they had to get back up.
This wasn’t a team that leaped into the playoffs suddenly, then added a marquee free agent or star in a trade and was off to the races.
The Nuggets toiled. They were eliminated in Game 82 of the 2018 season by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
They came back more resolved than ever to make the playoffs, though.
In 2019, they made the playoffs and won their first series as a young squad. Derrick White, then with the Spurs, exposed Jamal Murray’s defense and forced Michael Malone to make adjustments.
They finally got past the Spurs before facing the Blazers, pushing a veteran team led by Damian Lillard to Game 7. They only then lost because of a CJ McCollum barrage and random buckets from Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard.
They came back the next season even better, adding Jerami Grant in trade.
They were on pace for another playoff appearance, but there were questions about their mental toughness.
And then COVID hit.
The Nuggets entered the bubble without enough players to play five-on-five due to COVID. They wound up facing the Jazz and were down 3-1. They rallied back, though.
They wound up down 3-1 to the Clippers when Marcus Morris decided to run his mouth at never-brash, uber-veteran Paul Millsap. Millsap responded, lit a fire, and the Nuggets pulled off consecutive 3-1 comebacks.
The Nuggets lost to the Lakers in the 2020 Conference Finals, but that one hung bitterly with them. Denver felt it could’ve won that series, especially if Anthony Davis hadn’t hit his Game 2 jumper, a shot that’s abandoned him in every other environment with fans.
They lost Grant that summer in free agency despite offering him the same money and same years. Grant chose Detroit.
Then, they went in for the move they had been waiting to make forever. They traded Gary Harris, such a key part of the young core, along with picks to acquire Aaron Gordon.
And it all clicked. For five glorious games, the Nuggets looked like a real contender with a mix of Nikola Jokic’s playmaking, Murray’s scoring explosiveness, Michael Porter Jr.’s shooting and Gordon’s defense and athleticism.
And then Murray tore his ACL.
Denver had a real chance that season. And it was gone. For a lot of teams, that would’ve been the end of it.
Denver, without its second-best player, somehow still beat Portland before being swept by the Suns.
The Nuggets were patient with Murray publicly, but there was hope internally that he could return in February. Michael Malone mocked that idea. February came and went. Then March. Then it was April, and the playoffs arrived.
In that same season, the Nuggets lost MPJ to another back injury.
The Nuggets lost to the eventual-champion Warriors, starting Austin Reaves and playing Bryn Forbes real minutes.
They got back up.
And now here they are.
Denver had never swept a playoff series. 4-0, Nuggets over Lakers.
Denver had never beaten the Lakers in a playoff series. 4-0, Nuggets over Lakers.
Denver had never made the NBA Finals. 4-0, Nuggets over Lakers.
For the Nuggets, their job is not finished. And many of the players that defined those early years have moved on, including Harris, Will Barton and Millsap.
This version of the Nuggets is different. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Gordon have brought a level of physicality and toughness to the supporting players they needed.
Denver has long been a team that messed around too often. Instead, Denver is now 4-3 on the road in the playoffs.
It took a different Nuggets team to make history. It took all of this team’s history to put them on the precipice of their first championship.
These Nuggets are certified. They’ll need to either beat a Heat team that no one has been able to even touch in these playoffs or a Celtics team that will be favored.
But they have the combination.
A firebug point guard in Murray, who has size, a deep bag, elite shooting and a set of playmaking skills he’s worked to add alongside Jokic.
Gordon, who struggled in the Lakers series but thrived in Game 4 with 22 points and the game-winning block on LeBron James. Gordon has now been the primary defender against Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and James.
6-foot-10 Michael Porter Jr. is a 50-40-90 shooter whose biggest contributions have been in all the areas people questioned — defense, selflessness and discipline — even as he continues to rain 3s.
KCP and Bruce Brown are capable, physical defenders who get into their opponents.
And of course, Jokic. The Maestro. Jokic didn’t win MVP this year, in part because some questioned his playoff resume, ironically.
But Jokic has summited the NBA mountain. Jokic now has playoff series wins vs. Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, KD and LeBron.
The Finals will be another challenge, and we’ll get into all the reasons the Heat (or Celtics) can win the series in the coming days.
But if you look at who the best team has been in the playoffs? It’s the Nuggets.
If you look at who has the best two-man combo? It’s the Nuggets.
If you look at who has the best individual player? It’s the Nuggets.
All year long, everyone wanted to talk about how the West was wide open. Turns out, it was the Nuggets all along.
But when you see the Nuggets take the floor in Game 1 of their first Finals appearance in franchise history, remember that this team didn’t appear out of nowhere just because no one’s been paying attention.
The Nuggets had to fight to climb every stone on their ascent. They fell. They got back up. And they climbed again.
And now, they’re four wins away from that deep breath of air when you reach the top of the mountain you worked so hard to summit.
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