This isn’t how these things are supposed to go. At least, it’s not how long-time Nuggets fans expect them to go.
In Denver, for those who have been watching pro basketball since Maxie the Miner was gracing the team’s uniforms, the faithful have become accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop. They watch a game, series or season through a fatalistic lens; they’re anticipating the inevitable disappointment that’s about to go down.
That’s what happens when a team has been the victim of seemingly every possible bad outcome that could occur on a basketball court. That’s the natural reaction when a franchise has seen nothing but bad luck during its 50-plus years in existence.
But in the past month, the tide seems to have turned. Things are happening with the Nuggets right now that make even the biggest skeptics wonder if this season is finally different.
On Sunday evening, the latest basketball surprise was delivered to fans in the Mile High City. Down 2-1 to the Trail Blazers, Denver went into the Moda Center and knocked off Portland to even the best-of-seven Western Conference Semifinals. To call it a big win would be an understatement; it was a monster victory. And it was unexpected.
What made the win most improbable was the way Game 3 ended. The Nuggets had their chance to take back home-court advantage on Friday night, but couldn’t close things out.
They led 100-95 with 1:56 to play in regulation, but Portland managed to tie the game. Denver had the last shot in the first overtime, but Nikola Jokic was forced to heave a desperation three-pointer that missed. The Nuggets had the ball with less than 10 seconds to go in double OT, but they lost their chance to win the game on a lopsided jump ball toss. And in the third extra period, Denver managed to blow a 129-125 lead in the final 32 seconds.
In the end, the Blazers won the battle of attrition, earning a 140-137 victory. Almost everyone was calling an instant classic, making it sting even more for the team on the short end of the scoreboard.
That’s a Nuggets-esque loss. That’s how things go in Denver.
The offseason is supposed to be filled with fans and the media lamenting the one that got away. And the four-overtime defeat was just another chapter in a horrific book.
It was like Game 4 against the Lakers in the 1985 Western Conference Finals, when Alex English breaks his thumb and the Nuggets lose to fall behind 3-1 in the series. It was Anthony Carter and Kenyon Martin being unable to execute a simple inbounds pass in Games 1 and 3, respectively, 14 years later against the same nemesis from Los Angeles.
That’s how things go in Denver. That’s how they’ve always gone.
So it’s understandable that plenty of people thought the Nuggets were done after the disappointment of Game 3. That’s a tough defeat to bounce back from, even for battle-tested teams. It seemed impossible for a hard-luck franchise to rebound from it.
Somehow, in a win that defies the history of the team, the Nuggets did just that, however. In the process, they surprised everyone; everyone but perhaps their head coach.
“We were 12-1 on the second night of a back-to-back; best record in the NBA,” Michael Malone told the media after Denver’s 116-112 win in Portland, citing one of the most-eye-popping stats of the season. “Our guys are tough; we’re resilient. To come in here and win this game 36 hours after losing in four overtimes, (that) speaks to just how tough we are.”
On every front, Malone is absolutely correct. His team has repeatedly shown they have mettle unlike anything those who have come before them.
They did in the opening round, having to go into San Antonio to win a Game 4 against the Spurs that prevented that series from turning into what looked like another first-round exit. They did it at the end of the regular season, having to close out the final game of the year with a 15-0 run to beat Minnesota and claim the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. And they did in on Sunday in Portland, executing in the waning seconds of the game to exorcise the demons from Game 3.
“In the closing moments, I really was confident,” Malone told the media. He was perhaps the only one. “In close games this year, games decided by three points or less, we were 13-3; best record in the NBA.”
That number didn’t happen by accident. The Nuggets showed on Sunday why they were so successful in pressure situations throughout the season.
While the Blazers made a furious rally down the stretch, Denver managed to get the ball into their best free-throw shooter’s hands on three straight inbounds plays. And Jamal Murray calmly drained six straight from the foul line to ice the game for the Nuggets.
They did exactly what they had to do, but that doesn’t mean most people thought it would go down that way.
There wasn’t a hoops fanatic in the Mile High City who wasn’t watching each of those attempts by peeking through the fingers that were covering their eyes. There wasn’t an honest Nuggets fan around who wasn’t wondering how their favorite team was going to blow it this time around.
But Sunday was different. Game 4 in San Antonio was different. The season finale was different.
This Denver team isn’t saddled with the bad luck of past teams. They aren’t affected by David Thompson falling down a staircase at Studio 54, LaPhonso Ellis blowing out his knee in a pickup game during the offseason, ping-pong balls that never bounce their way in the NBA Draft Lottery or any of the other misfortunes that have befallen the franchise.
These Nuggets have something special. And it’s making a believer out of even the most fatalistic of fans.
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