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When the Nuggets beat the Utah Jazz in a dramatic Game 7 in the NBA playoffs’ first round a few weeks ago, you probably heard murmurs. The Nuggets are in the playoffs, huh? Those murmurs became roars, which you might have picked up on when the team stormed back to stun the L.A. Clippers in Game 7 of the second round. And now, as they’re about to square off against the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers this weekend in the Western Conference Finals, you just ordered a Jamal Murray jersey. Nothing wrong with that. All aboard the bandwagon.
But first, let’s get a few things straight. Though young, this current squad has been a long time coming, and the franchise itself has a storied history. So, if you’re going to sit in the virtual bleachers now, you should understand a few basic facts about the team (and, for that matter, its relationship with their opponent, the Lakers):
- Nikola Jokic and the Sombor Shuffle. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is massive, somewhat awkward, and all-around goofy. He’s also one of the best big men in all of basketball and on his way to becoming the best passing center of all time. Few things represent the dichotomy between what Jokic (pronounced “yo-kich”) looks like and his overall effectiveness better than what has become his signature move: the Sombor Shuffle. The maneuver, which gets its name from Jokic’s hometown in Serbia, involves him lumbering to jump off his right leg—about high enough to slip a credit card underneath—before releasing a high arcing shot that often finds the bottom of the net. Like everything Jokic does, the move may not be the most athletic thing in the world, but boy does it work.
- Fourth time’s the charm? The Nuggets have been here before—three times, actually. And two of the team’s previous trips to the Western Conference Finals featured the same opponent: the Los Angeles Lakers. Led by Kobe Bryant (RIP) in 2009, the Lakers beat Denver in six games in the Conference Finals before winning the championship over the Orlando Magic. Decades before that, in 1985, the Lakers dispatched the Nuggets in five games before (you guessed it) also winning the NBA Finals. If the Nuggets find a way past their old foe, it would mark the franchise’s first trip to the Finals. And if they don’t, then the Lakers are good money to take home the trophy (sports betting is now legal here, remember?).
- “Take That L.” Though Nuggets head coach Michael Malone perpetually looks like he just slugged 14 cups of coffee, he is actually pretty damn cool. So cool, in fact, that he dropped one of the greatest one-liners in modern league history in November 2018 after a Nuggets home win over the Lakers, which featured an alarming number of fans at the Pepsi Center wearing the wrong colors. His message to all those Laker fans? “Take that L on the way out.” If you’re feeling really committed to the Nuggets’ cause, you can buy a shirt with those words printed on it.
- Jamal Murray’s sleeping skills. The 2020 playoffs have been guard Jamal Murray’s coming out party. He scored 40-plus points in three different games during the Nuggets first-round series against the Utah Jazz, and had 40 points in the deciding game against the Los Angeles Clippers—all while looking like he was never going to run out of energy. Turns out there is a secret to that tirelessness: With little else to do in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Murray has been taking five-hour naps ahead of tip off on game day. And that’s after getting a good night’s sleep. Turns out basketball isn’t the only thing he’s doing at an elite level.
- History made. We’re just through two rounds of the playoffs, and already the Nuggets have done something unprecedented. Only 13 times in NBA history has a team come back from a 3–1 playoff series deficit and won. The Nuggets have done it twice this year, making them the only franchise to pull off such an unlikely comeback more than once in the same playoffs. Hopefully, they don’t put themselves in a hole against the Lakers; but if they do get down in the series, we might be in for some inspired basketball
- Throwbacks. The Nuggets have done some rebranding over the past couple of years, tweaking their color scheme and rolling out fresh jerseys. Perhaps the most popular, at least among young fans purchasing gear—is the rainbow-mountain-skyline uniform. However, this isn’t just a recent LoDo-bro fashion craze, it’s a callback to the ’80s. These uniforms were first unveiled in the 1982–83 season, when greats like Alex English (he’s a Hall of Famer; look him up) made the Nuggets perennial contenders in the Western Conference.
- King James in Denver? When current Lakers forward LeBron James was looking for a new team in the summer of 2018, it was rumored that he had a slight interest in the Nuggets. Apparently, the main reason there was a sliver of fascination from one of the greatest players of all time was because of his strong relationship with Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, who was an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers during James’ first tenure with the team. He has even gone out of his way to praise Malone multiple times since joining the Lakers. Here’s hoping a Nuggets win can make James regret not reuniting with Malone in the Mile High City.
- Local roots. Very few players in NBA history have had ties to Denver from their youth. (Former Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups really is a unicorn in that respect.) While Nuggets forward Paul Millsap isn’t a native of the Mile High City, he did spend a great deal of elementary and middle school living in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood before moving to Louisiana for high school so his mother could be closer to family. He returned to the city in 2017 after signing a three-year, $90 million contract that, at the time, made him the highest paid athlete in Colorado pro sports history, in terms of average salary per year. The Nuggets and Millsap even announced the signing together during a press conference at Montbello Recreation Center as a nod to his roots in the city.