The silence was deafening in Chase Center on April 12th, 2021. That silence was the Denver Nuggets season slipping away.
Jamal Murray tore his ACL while the Nuggets attempted a furious comeback on the road against the Golden State Warriors. It was a freak accident, a drive to the rim that Murray made countless times before. This time was different as Murray collapsed to the ground in obvious pain. The way the Nuggets reacted in the moment, with Malone nearly sprinting to Murray’s side under the opposite basket and the entire Nuggets contingent surrounding their fallen point guard, there was an awful feeling surrounding this game. Players looked shellshocked, and the worst fears were confirmed by the following day: Murray was out for the year and would be facing a long road to recovery that would even extend into the next season.
A team with lesser courage would have folded in that moment, but the Nuggets, anchored by Nikola Jokić, the most valuable player in the NBA, just kept chugging along.
Then, in quick succession, Monte Morris, Will Barton, and P.J. Dozier suffered injuries over the following three weeks. The Nuggets reacted quickly, adding free agents Austin Rivers and Shaquille Harrison to their guard rotation to help stem the tide. It was clear though that with two short rookie guards in Facundo Campazzo and Markus Howard as the only other backcourt options that the Nuggets were just about sunk. How could any basketball team operate without enough rotation caliber guards to play 5-on-5 in practice? Was this team really meant to compete in the playoffs?
A team with lesser resilience would have fallen apart given the circumstances, but the Nuggets, flanking Jokić with new star Michael Porter Jr. and their newest trade acquisition in Aaron Gordon, just kept chugging along.
Heading into the playoffs, the Nuggets knew they would have Morris back at full strength but were still severely undermanned. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, a team with excellent scoring talent in the backcourt, the Nuggets had found the one matchup that their injuries had the highest potential to alter the outcome. There’s no question that, at full strength, the Nuggets were a better team than the Blazers. With Murray, Barton, AND Dozier? It was anyone’s guess.
Then, after an epic six game series that saw two absolute superstars deal haymakers at each other, the more resilient team won. That’s just what they do. They survive and advance.
“Every time, when we hit adversity, most times, we never run from it,” Michael Malone shared in the postgame media availability after winning Game 6 and clinching the playoff series. “We buckle down, and we embrace it, and we find a way.”
The Nuggets did find a way. It began, as it always does and always will, with Nikola Jokić. Fresh off a 72-game campaign that saw Jokić lock up MVP honors by around Game 58 due to his dominance and perseverance, the Nuggets big man was asked to do the impossible this series: quit passing so much. The Blazers decided that their best way to win the series was to defend Jokić 1-on-1 with their best big man defender, former Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkić. Throughout the series, the two had some impressive battles and sequences. There were times where Nurkić got the better of Jokić too.
But as the series wore on and Jokić grew more comfortable with attacking the Blazers defense, he continued to find ways to one-up his former teammate. He baited Nurkić into fouls, using countermoves to his countermoves in the post, and outmaneuvered Nurkić in each of the final two pivotal games of the series. Jokić averaged 33.0 points and just 4.5 assists per game in the series. At one point in his career, Jokić was criticized for lacking aggressiveness as a scorer. That take didn’t really age well.
Then, there’s Michael Porter Jr., with the weight of the world on his shoulders entering this playoff series. The Nuggets had to ask the world of him as a scorer and shooter due to Murray’s absence. If was unfair to do so, but Porter answered the call in a big way. Three games of 25+ points in the series, averaging 18.8 points per game while shooting 54% from the field, 41% from three, and 91% from the free throw line. With the way that the Blazers were targeting Porter and digging into his weaknesses at every turn, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him fall apart after a three-point performance in Game 4.
Instead, Porter bounced back, showing toughness, resiliency, and grit in the face of a hostile environment. He more than earned his stripes in this series, capping it off with a 22-point first quarter in Game 6 to keep the Nuggets afloat amid a scoring barrage by the Blazers early. It was the eighth time a player scored 20+ first quarter in the NBA playoffs since play-by-play data was tracked to that degree in 1997. Curiously, Devin Booker was the ninth person to do so just two hours later, and the Nuggets will be facing Booker’s Phoenix Suns in the second round on Monday.
To complete the story on the Nuggets though, you have to look up and down the roster to appreciate the magnitude of Denver’s success. Let’s look at every player that played significant minutes in this series beyond Jokić and Porter:
- Aaron Gordon was acquired in a midseason trade with the Orlando Magic. Gordon’s versatility, athleticism, and willingness to take on difficult assignments helped him become the Swiss army knife Michael Malone needed this series. He spent nearly equal time guarding Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington in this series
- Facundo Campazzo started every single game against a backcourt that featured Lillard and McCollum. Frankly, it wasn’t that bad. Facu made some mistakes, and some of his limitations were on display; however, he played with heart, made some crafty passes, and hit enough shots to help the Nuggets stay afloat in his minutes. A reminder that Campazzo is a 5’10” (shorter) 30-year-old rookie who continuously tried to poke the bear in this series.
- Austin Rivers signed with the Nuggets around April 20th (about six weeks ago) and has been exceptional ever since his arrival. He had the most success of anyone guarding Lillard and McCollum outside of Gordon, and he also added a scoring dimension offensively that the Nuggets sorely needed in Game 3 and Game 5. Both were pivotal Nuggets wins.
- Monte Morris came off the bench while still averaging 29.5 minutes per game. Although he had at least eight points and four assists in each of his first four games, both he and the Nuggets felt he was holding back. He unleashed a new side of him in Game 5, posting a career-high 28 points to go with five assists, then followed it up with 22 points and nine assists to close out the Blazers.
- JaMychal Green didn’t have a bunch of big moments, but he was a positive plus-minus in four of Denver’s six games this series, including a “best-for-last” performance of 10 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes in Game 6, leading the Nuggets with a +22 plus-minus.
- Paul Millsap struggled for much of the series, but his 15 points, seven rebounds, and three assists in a Game 2 win were huge in getting the Nuggets back on track after a loss.
- Markus Howard was a two-way rookie contract this year, and at 5’10” was always going to be at a major disadvantage in the NBA. Imagine the surprise when he was in the playoff rotation for the Nuggets after barely playing all season, shooting 9-of-20 from three in his 92 playoff minutes and giving the Nuggets a proper spark off the bench. A great story
- Shaquille Harrison, Denver’s other two-way contract, had signed with the Nuggets in April amid the myriad backcourt injuries Denver had suffered. Though he barely played throughout the series, his best moment was in Game 2, briefly disrupting Damian Lillard with his defense when nobody else on the roster could. Harrison was available for the entire NBA to pick up, and they didn’t.
With 5:59 remaining in the fourth quarter of a 108-108 tied Game 6 last night, Michael Malone went back to Nikola Jokić, taking out Michael Porter Jr. in the process to give the forward a brief rest. Porter, after scoring 22 points in the first quarter alone, had 26 at that point and had slowed down greatly. The Nuggets were going with Morris, Rivers, Gordon, Green, and Jokić, a bigger, more defensive lineup, and that group proceeded to go on an 11-0 run in the next 2:40 of game time.
Rather than pout about being pulled from a close game, Porter did the exact opposite as the minutes counted down.
“I told coach, I think I came out with like, five, six minutes left,” Porter told media postgame. “I saw what [JaMychal Green] was doing out there, and I was like, ‘man, let him rock.’”
Porter wasn’t thinking about himself in that moment, but rather about what was best for the team. Green was playing well, and down the stretch, he had two clutch free throws and two clutch offensive rebounds, one of which set up the dagger three by Aaron Gordon after Green helped reset the shot clock with his hustle play.
“I love our group,” said Michael Malone after clinching the series win. “It’s never about ‘me.’ It’s always about the group, the collective unit. That’s why we have a special culture.”
The Nuggets continue to prove that it’s less about who plays and more about how they play, given the opportunity. The “next man up” mentality is something the Nuggets have preached for years, but it never became more prevalent than when Murray went out for the season. Michael Malone stood in front of the Nuggets locker room, read off Murray’s scoring and assist averages, and said, “nobody is going to replace Jamal Murray.” The only way the Nuggets would be able to survive is by acting together, by stepping up as a unit.
To say that they have done so would be an understatement. Porter has taken a significant step forward. Morris set career highs. Campazzo was setting the table as a starter.Rivers got here six weeks ago and won Denver Game 3 with his heroics. Howard and Harrison stepped up out of nowhere as well to give the Nuggets found money with their production and impact.
At some point, maybe even during these Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Phoenix Suns, the Nuggets might even get some reinforcements in the form of Will Barton and P.J. Dozier. It’s uncertain, but those two have made progress in their rehab and could be useful against the Suns.
But even if they don’t come back, it’s clear that this version of the Nuggets deserves respect. Top to bottom, the organization is coming together to play winning basketball. Nobody would have blamed them if things went the other way after Murray’s injury, and to come right back against the team that beat them in seven games in 2019, including a Game 7 loss on their home floor, that shows a tremendous amount of pride, grit, and resilience rarely found in other organizations.
Malone never stopped believing, and his constant belief was the through line for everything the Nuggets needed to be as they found themselves without their star point guard.
“I love our team. I love every player in our locker room, one through seventeen,” Malone said postgame.
So do Nuggets fans, coach. As if this fanbase needed another reason to cheer.
Whatever happens going forward, the Nuggets proved their salt as a team without ever needing to do so. If they advance further in the playoffs, it will be a pleasant surprise to this site manager, but certainly not a requirement.
But frankly, the Nuggets making a deep playoff run with this group would be the most NuggLife thing about the team this year. Because when the chips are down, that’s exactly when they find that extra gear. It’s a beautiful sight every time.