The Nuggets achieved the impossible. Can they do it again?

The Nuggets weren’t supposed to be here.

All year long, basketball fans waited for the postseason installment of the two Los Angeles squads battling it out for the final seat in the West. It was supposed to be a war of attrition between two of the league’s deepest rosters with their all-star pairings leading the charge.

It would have been great to see the King and AD go at it against the Klaw and Playoff P for another four or so games. A heated exchange between Chris Paul Rajon Rondo and Patrick Beverley would have been a nice touch to add a little more gas into the fire. It would’ve also been nice to see a mini three-point contest between the Morris twins just to see who gets to be their mother’s favorite.

THAT was supposed to be the conclusion to one of this season’s most compelling narratives. Period.

The basketball gods had other plans though.

Instead of their blue-collar neighbors, the Lakers are presented with a scrappy team composed of a handful of promising young stars. Led by an uncanny cast featuring an oversized center, a future all-star point guard, an aging veteran, and a budding rookie. The Denver Nuggets rallied back from whatever obstacle that was thrown at them in the Bubble and made it all the way to the West Finals. Fueled by an immense belief in themselves and in their system, the comeback kids from Colorado have proven that they have an equal stake at this year’s Larry O’Brien trophy.

The Nuggets weren’t supposed to be here — and yet here they are. Despite being counted out in just the first round, this exceptional team has defied the odds to be exactly where they are right now. But the question is, can they make us believe in them once again?

The stage is set for the final round in the West. Here are a few things to look out for:

Photo from Getty Images

Return of L.A.’s big men

The Lakers won their series against Houston because they were able to beat the Rockets at their own game: small ball. However, this adjustment didn’t come without sacrifice. One of the casualties was the reduced minutes of both JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.

From averaging 13.4 and 18.9 minutes respectively, those numbers saw a steep decline at only 7.5 and 7.8 minutes each.

Frank Vogel has hinted at the return of his two traditional big men given how Denver’s front court wildly contrasts Houston’s. Since Denver’s bigs aren’t as mobile as guys like PJ Tucker or Robert Covington, the Lakers could definitely utilize their verticality on defense, especially if Jokic goes deep in his bag and pulls off something like this:

Photo from AP

Playoff Rondo

When Vogel opted to play Rajon Rondo for 24 minutes in their Game 1 loss against the Rockets, fans and analysts were in disbelief. Many claimed that he received too much exposure on the court for a guy who hasn’t played a full-regulation game since March 10.

However, Rondo quickly silenced the doubters in the next four games, providing quality minutes night in and night out including this vintage performance in Game 3.

Rondo’s presence gives the Lakeshow a secondary facilitator, especially when LeBron James is on the bench. Moreover, having Rondo on the floor with James allows the King to play off-ball more often — something we didn’t see that much during the Portland series. Rondo is one of those players who you would hate to play against, but love to have on your team. On defense, the 34-year-old point guard has shown that he is still a feisty defender who doesn’t back down from a fight.

The Lakers are lucky to have another fierce competitor with a championship pedigree on their side. Expect the former All-Star to make big plays down the stretch.

Photo from USA Today

Third quarter kings

The Nuggets have captured the hearts of many by mounting incredible comebacks en route to a huge series W. In their series against the Clippers, the Nuggets had a penchant for turning things around in the second half.

Here’s a breakdown of the second half stats in their last three wins:

  • Game 5: Outscored Clippers 67-49 (held LAC to 34.8%, shot 59.5%)
  • Game 6: Outscored Clippers 64-35 (held LAC to 26.3%, shot 61.1%)
  • Game 7: Outscored Clippers 50-33 (held LAC to 28.3%, shot 48.6%)

While it is possible to say that the Clippers just simply choked in the second half, credit still has to be given to the Nuggets. As Mike Malone mentioned, the Nuggets were able to achieve these comebacks because each of them trusted one another to make the right plays in dire situations. With the amount of firepower they have, Denver is a dangerous team when they keep the ball flying until they find an open shot. Of course, it also helps to have a proven closer in Murray who is capable of making the big shots when the game is on the line.

It’s not a secret why their record stands at 6-0 in elimination games this season when you have a team who has each other’s backs.

Photo from USA Today

Do they still have enough in the tank?

It’s an understatement to say that closing out a seven-game series is tiring. But finishing off two seven-game series after coming back from a 3-1 deficit in both of them is literally something unheard of. Everyone is entering uncharted territory here and this is why it will remain a question if the Denver Nuggets still have enough juice to last at least another four games.

Murray and Jokic have played a combined 1075 minutes in their 14 games of the playoffs. To put that into perspective, James and Davis have logged in a combined 691 minutes in the postseason, in only 10 games. The Nuggets may have been running on adrenaline in the past series and so this begs the question: Will we finally see the fatigue manifest against LA? Or did the four-month-long intermission give enough rest for the Nuggets so that they can withstand possibly three Game 7s in a row?

Photo from USA Today

Who makes it out of the West?

I’m giving the edge to the Lakers in this series. I’d say the Lakers have a chance at putting away the Nuggets in five or six games, granted that they don’t pull a Doc Rivers and blow a 3-1 lead. Apart from the fact that they are the more rested team, by now, they have probably earned a master’s degree in handling teams with high-scoring guards (Lillard and McCollum, Harden and Westbrook).

The Purple and Gold will come into this series carrying with them a myriad of experience defending shoot-first guards so it will be a challenge for Denver to off-load the offensive burden from Murray. If the Nuggets want to put themselves in a position to win, the team should continue to keep the ball hopping as they did in the past series because they’re not doing themselves any favors when the ball is stagnant. Beating (arguably) the league’s best defensive team is nothing short of a herculean task. Malone and his young squad will have to be sharp on both ends of the court against a Lakers team who can make adjustments on-the-fly.

But if you’ve noticed any pattern in the Bubble, it’s that nothing is set in stone especially when you factor in the lack of a home-court advantage. With Denver facing tough odds and playing the definite underdogs in a Cinderella story, the seat at the NBA Finals will boil down to the team who plays with more heart and better execution as the two clubs dance once again for a fiery Western Conference Final.

Timeline:

Offensive Masterclass

The late ’00s saw a perennial matchup between L.A.’s finest and the Mile-High club during the postseason. Fans were treated with frequent duels between Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, two of the league’s most potent offensive weapons.

Dark Ages

Bryant’s Achilles heel injury in 2013 sent L.A.’s front office into full rebuild mode. Similarly, Anthony’s departure to the New York Knicks in 2011 left the Nuggets without a clear centerpiece to build the team around on.

A New Era

In an unexpected turn of events, the Lakers signed free agent Lebron James during the summer of 2018. The following year, L.A. completed their all-star cast by acquiring Anthony Davis through a controversial deal with the New Orleans Pelicans. On the other hand, the Nuggets entered the postseason as the 2nd seed in 2018 after drafting Jokic and Murray in the years prior. This ended a 5-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Rekindling the Rivalry

With a rich history between them, the Lakers are slated to meet the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.