NuggLife is dead. Long live NuggLife.
The popular phrase that embodies everything about being a Denver Nuggets fan, NuggLife represents what Nuggets fans believe will always happen as soon as hope begins to form for a franchise fraught with failure. The Nuggets were never supposed to be here. They’re the Nuggets. They always find a way to mess these things up. That’s who they are and what they’ve always been.
But in Game 5 against the Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets flipped a switch.
After hearing about how the Nuggets were cooked against the Jazz, that they couldn’t defend Donovan Mitchell, that Rudy Gobert was better than Nikola Jokic, it was getting to a dire place. It didn’t appear that the Nuggets had enough in the tank to come back against an inferior team with specific schematic advantages to hurt Jokic and Denver’s defense.
But then they flipped the switch.
Game 5? The Nuggets win that one after trailing by double digits in the third quarter (a theme hanging over Denver’s entire playoff run) because Jamal Murray scored 42 points. He willed Denver back into the game and was the best player on the floor to keep Denver’s hopes alive.
Game 6? The Nuggets win again, and this time Murray drops another 50 piece. The Jazz were getting nervous because Gary Harris returned from injury and it certainly felt like the tide was turning.
Game 7? Nikola Jokic played his best game of the series and showed Rudy Gobert was no match for him, hitting the game-winning basket on a twirling hook shot in the lane with less than 30 seconds remaining.
The Nuggets danced with fire in the first round and barely escaped, but now, SURELY they would lose to the championship favorite Los Angeles Clippers!
Through the first four games, it sure looked that way. The Nuggets had a built in excuse for losing Game 1, and they recovered in Game 2. Game 3 was a missed opportunity, and Game 4 was a mistake filled game with questionable decision making. The Nuggets came back from a 3-1 lead against Utah, but there’s no way they could do it against the Clippers.
But then they flipped the switch.
Game 5? Denver goes down double digits but digs deep behind big performances from Jokic, Murray, and Paul Millsap. They caught some momentum.
Game 6? Same result. Denver goes down double digits only for Denver to show incredible resilience and character in fighting back to even the series at 3-3. Nikola Jokic dropped 34 points and looked like a player the Clippers had no answer for other to get the ball out of his hands.
Game 7? The Clippers tried just that, but it was Jamal Murray’s turn to take the reins and have his best game of the series, dropping 40 points against one of the best perimeter defense trios ever assembled. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are scary good defensively. Patrick Beverley’s name pops up in the dictionary when you look up “pest” because he’s always being annoying. None of those three could do anything to Murray tonight, who was in another zone as a scorer and playmaker. Not to be outdone, Nikola Jokic put up 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 13 assists. I mean, come on. That’s superstar talk.
The Nuggets did the impossible this series, and it’s because they had a gear that most national audiences never acknowledged, a switch that they could flip against the best teams in the NBA.
There were signs that the Nuggets were turning into an extremely resilient team, even during the regular season. There were also signs that the Nuggets were better than advanced numbers and projections gave them credit for. They accumulated 17 wins against teams with a record of 0.500 and better in the regular season, tied for the fourth most in the NBA. They could have had more, even against the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, if they cared about wins or losses in the seeding games entering the bubble. There were no sub .500 teams to face in the playoffs this year for the Nuggets to not take seriously. Those were their problems in the regular season, not games against good teams.
When the Nuggets had their backs against the wall at various points in the regular season, they responded in a similar way to how the playoffs went. On a back-to-back in Milwaukee facing what was believed to be the best team in the NBA in the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nuggets traveled into town at 4:00am without three of their starters and ran Milwaukee out of their own arena. On a back-to-back in Salt Lake City after the Nuggets executed a trade the night before to leave the team incredibly shorthanded, the seven players that suited up fought their tails off to eek out a win over Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and the Utah Jazz. That bore out in the playoffs by the way.
When Jamal Murray returned from injury in February, he played the rest of the season like a budding star. He made some changes to his game and started playing a more efficient brand of basketball. There were signs he’d be this good prior to the bubble. That’s for sure.
When challenged over and over again, the Nuggets have responded to adversity, have flipped the switch and proven to be as capable a basketball team as any of the four remaining squads. With Jokic and Murray playing at this current level, there’s no remaining team that the Nuggets can’t beat.
That may sound insulting to Los Angeles Lakers fans, but it’s genuinely the truth. The Nuggets present as many matchup issues for the Lakers as the Lakers present for the Nuggets. It’s very possible that the Nuggets could have the best player in the series. Jokic just out-dueled Kawhi Leonard, and while LeBron James and Anthony Davis both present different challenges, it doesn’t mean he can’t overcome them. Moreover, Murray has a better matchup this series than the length and physicality he faced in seven games against the Clippers. Both of Denver’s stars, if they continue to play like stars, present major issues for the Lakers. That’s a fact.
But frankly, that’s all gravy. In the Semi-Finals, it was apparently missed by many that the Nuggets had another gear in them. It was assumed that the Clippers had another level to climb. Instead, they folded like the lawn chair they will probably take to beaches in Cancún where they can join Damian Lillard sunning himself by the ocean.
The Nuggets, not the Clippers, flipped a switch in this series. Never forget it.