The Denver Nuggets have spent the last few months hearing tales of unreliable playoffs, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic can’t lead to postseason success, and the best record in the league. It’s here. The Western Conference for most of the season was a mirage of sorts.
No one was scared of them in the playoffs, or so the story goes.
But in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, the Nuggets easily edged out Minnesota and Phoenix, despite their reputation for waning in the postseason. They appeared to be doing the same against the Lakers on Tuesday night, as they dominated Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals for most of the season. But as the second half progressed, Denver left room for questions about their playoff toughness to once again creep in.
Fair or not, with a 132-126 win on Tuesday and a 1-0 lead in the series, all that matters for the Nuggets is whether they can prove their elite play isn’t an illusion that disappears in May. is.
“It’s far from what we’re trying to do,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told the team in the locker room after the game.
The Nuggets have never made it to the NBA Finals and have not played in the championship round since 1975-76, their final season in the National Basketball Association. The current group cannot be blamed for most of its disappointing history.
But even now, something happens every year that thwarts the Nuggets’ title fight, and the Nuggets are blamed for it.
Jokic has been an All-Star for the past five seasons, but Denver has only made it to the Conference Finals once in that time, in 2020. That year, the Nuggets lost five games to the Lakers in a closed-door Saturday night. Disney World in Florida because of the coronavirus pandemic. With talented point guard Jamal Murray out, each of the next two years saw them exit the postseason even earlier, with Murray torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee about a month before the 2021 playoffs.
And this season the Nuggets are starting to look unbeatable.
They were tied for first place in the West From December 20th until the end of the season. Jokic had yet another MVP-worthy year, but lost the award to Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Murray is back after spending a year and a half recovering from a knee injury. The Nuggets won 75% of their games in January and February.
Perhaps the lackluster effort in March, when the Nuggets went 7-7, convinced observers that they weren’t as dominant as they should be as the top seed. Or maybe he’s just being punished by public opinion for his past playoff performance.
They claim to ignore it, but seem willing to change the conversation this time.
They beat the Timberwolves comfortably, humiliated the Suns in the second round, and won the series deciding game by 25 points.
“I don’t know what a champion team will look like, but I think that’s how it should be,” Jokic said after the series. We paid attention to every detail. ”
But now, the game against the Lakers has brought back memories of a team in Denver that the Nuggets don’t want to end up like. The team they last played in the playoffs, losing to the Lakers in the 2020 Conference Finals. Now both teams are almost completely different except for the stars. Jokic and Murray of the Nuggets and LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Lakers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was a key role player for the Lakers in 2020, is now a key role player for the Nuggets.
For better or worse, everyone is older. Previously, the Lakers were drawn to James’ play. Davis’ role is now much more important than it used to be.
For two and a half quarters into Tuesday’s game, this year’s Lakers looked unmatched by this year’s Nuggets, and Denver’s skepticism about their championship ambitions seemed silly.
Denver scored 72 points and led by 18 by halftime. Jokic has already tallied 19 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists.
“It took half a minute to get into the game,” James said. “It was just a ball game.”
In the Lakers’ previous postseason series against Memphis against Golden State, Davis’ mere presence scared opponents out of the paint. That’s not going to happen against the Nuggets. For most of the game, Davis was chained to Jokic and unable to show his strength against the Warriors.
The Lakers had yet to face a player like Jokic in the playoffs, in part because they didn’t have a player like him, a big man who could pass as easily as score. That’s why Lakers manager Durbin Hamm jokingly suggested on Monday that the only way to stop Jokic might be to kidnap him.
Midway through the third quarter, Jokic had already achieved a triple-double.
Then, at the buzzer, he hit an off-center step-back 3 and a breathtaking Davis waved his arm to stop the Lakers’ run late in the third quarter. Davis left the court with a bitter smile. He did everything he could, but it wasn’t enough to stop Jokic.
Jokic had 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists. Davis had 40 points and 10 rebounds.
In the Nuggets’ locker room after the game, Malone addressed the team with pride and caution. In comments aired on ESPN, he said he had a good win but also “played a better defense.”
Hamm hinted that he didn’t reach the full potential of his adjustment in Game 1. Malone said he wants to fix mistakes after a win more than after a loss.
What ultimately matters more to legitimizing the Denver Nuggets as a championship threat is not how they win these games, but how they win.