Before this series, if you’d asked most people who would advance to the NBA Finals between the Lakers and their nameless opponents, they would have responded with a rhetorical question. “Do you know who they’re playing?” Not literally. The Denver Nuggets aren’t in witness protection, but just a few days ago the hubris of picking them over LeBron and Anthony Davis in the Conference Finals would have been astounding. It’s never wise to doubt LeBron James, especially when his opponents are lambs for slaughter.
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To the outside world, the Denver Nuggets are the same team L.A. swept in The Bubble. Since then, they’ve been swept in the postseason by Phoenix and manhandled by the Warriors in six. The Lakers, however, were the real apple of everyone’s playoff eye. They just dismantled the defending champions in six games through an authoritative performance by Davis.
A Celtics and Lakers Finals was written in the stars. LeBron James has been tormented and been the tormentor of the Celtics for 15 years. Boston ended his first Cleveland reign. LeBron James ended the Celtics run in a 2012 series that was so profound, it birthed the LeBron death stare. A week later, the storyline is still about the disbelief over Denver sonning LeBron, and Company like it’s 2007 all over again. One second, L.A. was the hottest story in the West, AD was sentencing the Warriors to six games in Alcatraz, and the Nuggets were perceived to be shrinking violets. A week later, Denver has those Lakers buried in an 0-3 hole. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. From Ferris Bueller’s lips to God’s ears.
The Nuggets are the extinction-level event nobody saw coming — at least before the season. Despite losing one of the league’s top talent evaluators to Minnesota, the Nuggets lineup made some upholstery changes and returned Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, and a spoonful of role players, which gave Jokic the room to decide which version best fit what the Nuggets needed on a nightly basis. If you still doubted them after they tore the Phoenix Suns to shreds, that’s on you. Nobody was a more invisible force within the NBA’s attention economy than Denver and Murray as the inconspicuous hand helping Jokic lift their transcendent offense. Murray is a fireball when he gets going, but the jury was still out on whether a fringe All-Star would swing the odds dramatically for Denver.
Small market, big team
In Game 3, Murray might as well have been invisible as he exploded for 30 at the half before anyone noticed the pyromaniac lighting up the Crypto Arena scoreboard. How did the number one defense in the NBA allow the Nuggets to beat them? Sacramento had the best offensive rating in league history and all the focus on Denver centered on the MVP race and which boxers he was wearing on a nightly basis. But the Nuggets’ offense has translated as the NBA’s best in the postseason by a significant margin.
It’s easy to overlook the Nuggets. Being neglected by the media is the Western Conference No. 1 seed’s primary personality trait. The only glimpse of Jokic off a basketball court we’ve ever seen was the horse stable he was staying on when he was presented with his second MVP. He rarely emotes in front of the media and his visibility in terms of shoe deals and endorsements is practically nil.
Being overlooked so ingrained in Nuggets culture, it spreads through osmosis, and I was distracted by a more compelling discussion about the Lakers’ shortcomings a couple grafs up. Throughout this series, the leading storylines have been LeBron’s foot giving out on him often enough that the Lakers should look into securing him a LifeAlert sponsorship as a precaution, Austin Reaves’ Court Cobain swag, or Rui Hachimura switching onto Jokic being what decides the series for Los Angeles — after they lost Game 1.
The Nuggets might as well have been the camera crew shooting the game. Porter’s low assist rate has always been a pockmark, but in Game 3, he set a new career-high in assists. As a result of the media blackout surrounding Denver, the NBA is just now discovering the brilliance that is Swiss knife Bruce Brown. The 6-4 Brown has periodically roamed between point guard and power forward. He’s the inverse of Denver’s point guard in an amorphous center’s body. Brown is a pure point guard with a 90s power forward’s tenacity. He’s just as likely to be the roll man in pick-and-rolls as he is to be the ball-handler. Last season in Brooklyn, Brown scored 68 percent of his shots in the paint, and 15 percent from beyond the arc.
In Denver, Brown’s seen an uptick in his perimeter usage, taking 22 percent of his shots behind the arc, and shooting 58 percent in the paint. In Game 3, he became the first bench player with 15/5/5 points, rebounds, and assist splits coming off the bench since Andre Iguodala in the 2015 Finals. Originally thought to be a 3-and-D wing, Brown took most of the minutes the diminutive Monte Morris left behind, and has fleshed out their defensive circulatory system.
We probably should have seen this coming. It doesn’t take extensive deep dives to notice the Lakers were a surging play-in team while the Nuggets won 53 games. That would only be good enough for fourth in the East though, but the Nuggets have few flaws. Their defense was below championship-caliber standards for much of the season
In the first 27 games of the season, they were third-worst in points allowed per 100 possessions. Through the final two-thirds of the season they ranked sixth, but never shook the perception of being a raggedy defensive team. Armed with potent offensive artillery and a dethroned MVP, the Nuggets are on the verge of finally seizing the narrative.
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