As we inch closer to Game 1 against the Lakers, it still hasn’t sunk in that the Nuggets will be making their fourth appearance in the NBA Western Conference Finals. As the clock drained in the final moments of Game 7 against the Clippers on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but ponder how in the world we got to this point.
Three weeks ago, it was open season on the Nuggets. It was said that their stars weren’t real stars. Nikola Jokic wasn’t a true leader. Michael Malone wasn’t the right coach. As a team, they were weak-minded.
Many believed they were just soft. As a Nuggets fan, I’ll be the first to admit that some of these were becoming thoughts of mine and know I’m not the only Nuggets fan who felt this way.
But then the miraculous happened and it started with a text message from Jamal Murray to his team.
“I remember I was in my room, I was folding my clothes and I said, ‘I ain’t folding my clothes,’” Murray said in his postgame interview following the Nuggets victory over Utah in Game 5. “I texted the team and said, ‘I don’t wanna go home yet.’”
The Nuggets would go on to defeat Utah in seven games to advance to the conference semifinals in which they were again counted out by mostly everyone, including myself, as they were set to square off with the team many hailed as the championship favorite. As Denver again found themselves in a 3-1 hole, my prediction of the Clippers closing the series in five games looked inevitable. Surely, Denver couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle twice, right?
The Clippers certainly didn’t think so and when the Nuggets were desperate for their two best players to carry them, they did – just as all real stars would. Jokic delivered a 22-point, 14-rebound double-double, while Murray flirted with a triple-double, notching 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. In the final three games of the series, Jokic would go on to average 24 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists with Murray pouring in an average of 29 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Part of what makes the Nuggets series comeback versus the Clippers so baffling is the fact that in each of the final three elimination games, they found themselves down by double-digits at one point. In Game 5, the Nuggets faced a 16-point deficit. In Game 6, Denver had to overcome a 19-point margin in the final 22 minutes of the game. Game 7 saw them down by as much as 12 points. And yet somehow, the Nuggets flipped a switch and dominated the second half of every elimination game.
In the second half of Game 5 versus the Clippers, Denver outscored L.A. 67-49. In Game 6, 64-35. In Game 7, 50-33. For those keeping score, that’s 181-117, which is an average of 60 points for Denver in the second halves of those elimination games and 39 for the other Los Angeles basketball team. To overcome that adversity time and time again while your season hangs in the balance is something only mentally tough teams can achieve, not those that are weak-minded and soft.
Now we know that the play of Jokic and Murray in those final three games is largely responsible for why the Nuggets advanced to the conference finals. However, their play isn’t the only reason, as in each one of their elimination games, the supporting cast overcame their own inconsistency to deliver when Denver’s stars needed them most. But how did the role players do that? It starts with having the trust of the team’s best player, Nikola Jokic.
In an appearance on “The Ryen Russillo Podcast” that was released on Thursday, Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly told Russillo a story from this week of a conversation between Jokic and an assistant coach.
“I think one of our coaches said (to Jokic), ‘You have to be more aggressive in the first half,’” Connelly explained. “And (Jokic) was like ‘No, trust me. I’ve got to keep finding guys, they’re going to need to make shots. I’ll be fine. They need to know I have confidence in them to keep finding them’. With Joker’s mindset, he is so smart saying we are going to need these guys. And I thought when we made that run in the second half (in Game 7), the confidence level and the freedom guys were playing with, was exactly who we need to be.”
Jokic sounds like a true leader to me.
There is no doubt we should be giving credit to this Nuggets team for their resiliency, but credit must also be given to their head coach. While many within the Nuggets fanbase still hold questions as to whether or not Malone is the right coach to lead this team to a title, one thing I know for sure is the Nuggets would not be where they are right now without his leadership and guidance.
NBA stars such as LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins have gone on record about how much they respect Malone, as he coached both players in different stints. Are Malone’s decisions (such as valuing defense over the development of Michael Porter Jr.) always the right ones? Of course not. But Malone has the patience that a young team needs from their coach. He also isn’t afraid to call out his team when they underperform and call them out when they get too full of themselves. More importantly, he has a quiet toughness about him that transfers over to his team – maybe we can attribute that to his New York upbringing. Malone may not be the right coach for this team for the future, but I know he is the one they need right now.
As we get set to enter into another playoff series in which the Nuggets are already being counted out, just know that this team couldn’t care less and that alone should make us proud. There is a famous saying in sports that was gifted to us by the late Dennis Green in which he proclaimed, “They are who we thought they were.”
Simply put, the Denver Nuggets aren’t who we thought they were.
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