DENVER — It took 3,787 regular-season games and 29 trips to the playoffs, countless ripoffs of rainbow uniforms and even more ‘yeah, buts’ than any city should have to stomach. Finally, 47 seasons into an entertaining, often frustrating and almost always overlooked journey in the NBA, Denver is at the center of the basketball world.
The Nuggets — yes, those sometimes-lovable and often-forgettable Nuggets — are in the NBA Finals.
The way they made it says everything about their near half-century in the league, and just how different this team is from every Denver team, even the really good ones, that preceded it.
The Nuggets brushed aside their long-held irrelevance by completing their first sweep in 44 NBA playoff series. They did it against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that has caused them so much of their pain. Before the Western Conference finals, Denver was 0-7 in playoff series against the Lakers. Now, Denver is 1-7.
“It’s almost like shock a little bit,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said, echoing a sentiment certainly being felt across the franchise’s long-suffering fan base. “You’re just like unsure, like, are you sure we don’t have more time on the clock? Are you sure we don’t have another quarter to play or another game to play?”
With all due respect to Dan Issel, Alex English, Carmelo Anthony and everyone else who ever wore rainbows, Nikola Jokic is the best player to put on a Denver uniform. He recorded his eighth triple-double of the playoffs in Monday night’s 113-111 win over LA, surpassing a record for a single postseason held by none other than Lakers great Wilt Chamberlain.
Jokic, who was 0.2 assists short of averaging a triple-double this season, got beat out for his third straight MVP this season by Philly’s Joel Embiid. Fans see it all as par for the course in a city where the team that debuted in the ABA as the Denver Rockets — not the better-known, better-respected Denver Broncos — really put the town on the national sports map. That was in 1967. The Broncos were still a laughingstock but the local basketball team put out a good product right away.
It was good enough to make the Nuggets a no-brainer when the ABA folded in 1976 and the NBA went picking through the wreckage to invite a few teams to join.
Between then and now, the city has seen its share of the spotlight. John Elway brought two Super Bowl titles home and Peyton Manning another. The Colorado Avalanche, who share a home (Ball Arena) and an owner (Stan Kroenke) with the Nuggets, have won hockey’s Stanley Cup three times, including last year. Even the Colorado Rockies have been to the World Series. The Nuggets only trip this close to the title came in 1976 when they lost in the last ABA final to Julius Erving and the Nets.
David Thompson; Larry Brown; Doug Moe; English; Issel; Anthony; George Karl; Allen Iverson; Chauncey Billups. All those coaches and players spent time in Denver. None ever got too close to that NBA title trophy while here. Before this week, Denver made the NBA conference finals four times, and lost all four.
It conspired to make the place little more than flyover territory — a city with high altitude that the schedule makers often tuck into other teams’ itineraries as part of long road trips with more exciting final destinations — LA, New York, Miami.
But Denver? It was a great place to take a night off — or, put more diplomatically, for teams to exercise the 21st-century NBA practice of “load management” for their best players.
While NBA titles, and the fanfare that comes with them, have been built on the shoulders of megastars for decades, the Nuggets never were part of that scene.
In fact, Jokic was the exact opposite of that when he arrived in 2014. Rather, he was a doughy second-round draft pick known only to the insiders who followed the Serbian hoops scene.
“Everybody gets cracked up into his stats but I don’t think a lot of people talk about, like, this part of his game,” LeBron James of the Lakers said after the sweep, as he pointed toward his head, indicating Jokic’s mastery of the cerebral part of hoops. “Maybe it’s not talked about it, because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”
Great as Jokic has been, it’s the addition of another under-the-radar player, guard Jamal Murray, and his return to full health that helped get this team over the top.
Murray was a lottery pick out of Kentucky in 2016, the year Ben Simmons was the top pick and considered the NBA’s Next Big Thing. Murray blew up in the bubble during COVID, bringing Denver within a series of the finals, only to see the Lakers snuff out another season. He missed the next two playoffs due to a devastating knee injury. These playoffs, Murray is feeling great. He averaged 32.5 points in the four-game sweep of LA.
“I think our chemistry is at an all-time high, the way we play, the way we read the game without even speaking,” Murray said. “We talk that language on the court.
“It’s just beautiful basketball, honestly.”
With the Nuggets in their first NBA Finals after all these years, it will be hard to find anyone in Denver who would argue with that.