When the final horn sounded in Denver’s 104-89 Game 7 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, many were left wondering how the title favorites could have lost so embarrassingly to of all teams, the Denver Nuggets.
Aside from the fact that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were severely outplayed by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, the answer is quite simple: the Denver Nuggets have what the Los Angeles Clippers do not.
The Clippers have George’s six All-Star appearances, Leonard’s two rings and Finals MVP awards, the Sixth Man of the Year titles belonging to Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell and even Doc Rivers’ coaching pedigree. They have a more favorable market and are an attractive free agency destination.
But the Denver Nuggets have trust. They have chemistry. They have heart. They 100% believe in each other. It was beyond evident that Los Angeles did not.
The Clippers tried to build Rome in a day, mortgaging any hope of a future for the chance of Leonard and George bringing the franchise its first title and relevancy that it has lacked for 50 years now. They banked on talent over team and confidence over cohesion. It got them nothing but an expenses-paid vacation at Disney World.
The post-game quotes from the Clippers’ players are very telling. “I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out. Chemistry it didn’t,” said Lou Williams. “In this series, it failed us.”
Kawhi Leonard also opined. “We just couldn’t make no shots. That’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots, and we gotta know what exact spots we need to be.”
In contrast, the Nuggets have been building for this moment since June 27, 2014 when the team drafted Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic. Michael Malone was hired in 2015, Jamal Murray was selected in 2016, Paul Millsap came as a free agent in 2017. For the past two seasons the bench has largely remained the same. Over that frame, Denver has gone from bottom-feeder to playoff hopeful to a second-round appearance last year to now a berth in the Western Conference Finals.
But the result of six years’ worth of growth and bonding isn’t just a feel-good story. Together with Nikola Jokic’s sheer dominance, Jamal Murray’s scoring ability and a deep bench that has completely bought in, the Nuggets have the talent and trust to go even further - yes, even to their first NBA Finals appearance and championship.
The chemistry built over the years is the key to Denver’s success this postseason. No other team remaining has anything remotely close to this level of unity, not even the Nuggets’ next opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be Denver’s biggest challenge yet. Undoubtedly many will see this as the time for Denver’s gig to be up, but anyone who is so quick to rule out the Nuggets will be in for a rude awakening.
The Lakers have yet to be truly tested this postseason following convincing series wins over Portland and Houston. If they think the red carpet will be rolled out for King James at Denver’s expense, they will be sorely mistaken. The Nuggets do not quit. How will the Lakers handle being punched back?
When push came to shove, the Clippers had nothing to fall back on and folded. Denver had plenty of adversity this series but when the going got tough it was the sense of brotherhood that kept them going. Not even Michael Porter Jr.’s frustration to the media after Game 4 caused a crack in the Nuggets; for any other team such a public outcry would have been catastrophic.
The Lakers were built almost the same way as the Clippers, nearly an entire roster gutted to land the two star players surrounded by cheaper contracts. It is well documented that playing with LeBron isn’t easy and questions of Lakers’ chemistry have arisen as recently as August. Add the pressure now of being the new title favorites and it’s clear the Lakers will have to dig deep to avoid a similar fate.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, have nothing to prove. No one wants them here. But that’s exactly when they play their best. Just ask the Jazz or the Clippers.
In a league dominated by superteams and “big threes”, the Denver Nuggets have stuck to the script and played the long game. Now, after years of patience, the fruits are coming in.
Will the Nuggets win the title this year? You better believe they have a legitimate chance.