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Just like we all drew it up: The Denver Nuggets dispatched LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers—the darlings of the national media—in just four games. With the sweep, they head to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
But such efficiency demands patience: We won’t see the Nuggets play again until June 1, when they take on either the Miami Heat (likely) or Boston Celtics (a long shot). While we wait, let’s consider the keys behind Denver’s unprecedented playoff surge.
Where else to start but with the man who was drafted during a Taco Bell commercial? That same Serbian player has gone on to win a pair of MVP awards (and was robbed of a third) and just brought home hardware as the Western Conference Finals MVP. Not that he cares about any of these accolades. But we do.
In the series against the Lakers, Nikola Jokić averaged a triple double, giving him 14 total playoffs games with such stats and jettisoning him out of this universe and into the same conversation as Magic Johnson, one of only two players in basketball history with more such games in the playoffs (familiar foe LeBron James is the other). In the Western Conference Finals, Joker averaged 11.8 assists per game; in these playoffs he’s averaging a whopping 10.3.
The man has dropped some delicious dimes. Here are some that caught our eye.
2. “Bubble Murray”
Most hoops fans dismiss the 2020 pandemic-affected “bubble year,” saying the truncated, stop-start season and spectator-less NBA Bubble in Florida were paltry excuses for basketball. That’s a shame because point guard Jamal Murray went off in those playoffs: averaging 26.5 points, 6.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and close to 50 percent shooting from behind the arc in 19 games. Six times he scored over 30 points, and he even threw down the half-century mark twice. That all earned him the moniker “Bubble Murray,” an unfair jab to the guy who blew his ACL the following spring and was sidelined last season.
When he returned, he played well, averaging 20 points, 6.2 assists, and four rebounds per game—proving the bubble season was no flash in the pan. And while Jokić may have won Western Conference Finals MVP, it was Murray’s offensive explosiveness that blew the Lakers away. He averaged 32.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 40 percent three-point shooting.
When asked how he feels about the “Bubble Murray” nickname last month, the guard told ESPN: “I got mixed feelings because people only refer to me as like that’s a different person. I don’t like to refer to that time as a different person. That’s me two years ago. And I feel like I’m better now.”
3. Mizzou Made
The University of Missouri is known for churning out journalists (a few of ’em have ended up here at 5280 HQ) and small forwards who are deadly from behind the three-point line. Some talking heads have compared Michael Porter Jr.’s play these playoffs to a certain San Francisco–based Splash Brother, but it’s not his penchant for big-time threes that has us swooning—it’s his maturation as a defender and his willingness to accept a lesser role.
Check out these two blocks. ’Nuff said.
4. All-Star Snub
But instead of letting that disrespect get to his head, Gordon—who averaged 16.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, and three assists, along with All-Star–caliber defense this season—carried his impressive play into the playoffs where he’s demonstrated his telepathic connection with Jokić every game. Coach Michael Malone, who often sticks his stalwart defender on the opposing team’s best player, tasked the young forward with covering James in the Western Conference Finals. As a result, the future Hall of Famer had a relatively quiet series, apart from a breakout first half in game four (which hardly matters now).
This block sent the King packing.
5. “Kid Can Play”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—“KCP” for short—was a member of the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers that eliminated the Denver Nuggets. Even so, the L.A. brass tossed him into a mega-package to acquire Russell Westbrook the following season, the ultimate slap in the face to a guy whose three-point shooting was a key part of the Lakers’ championship run.
KCP did his best to make the Lakers regret the decision in these playoffs: In addition to nearly 50 percent shooting from three-point range, his defensive play stood out. Coach Malone sent him to the podium after game three to represent the Nuggets after a 17-point performance and this nail-in-the-coffin steal. He finished at the rim and attacked the boards.
If you didn’t know before, now you do. Kid Can Play.
6. Sixth Man
When Coach Malone saw that Bruce Brown was available on the second day of free agency, he didn’t hesitate to bring him into the fold this past off-season, dubbing him the “perfect fit” for the Nuggets. Off the bench, Brown is a swaggy defender and a deft ball handler. He’s not the guy who’s brought in just so another one can rest—he’s a bonafide role player.
In the Western Conference Finals, Brown averaged more than 27 minutes—well over half of a 48-minute contest. He was a playmaker who jumpstarted the Nuggets’ offense a few times when it went cold and an absolute pest on defense. And we will watch this tomahawk dunk on loop.
7. Uncle Jeff
Age is just a number. Jeff Green, who turns 37 this summer, plays the game like you want your teenager to: unselfishly and with unimpeachable fundamentals. That’s how he earned his nickname in the first place: Years ago in Cleveland, the King said Green—both members of the Cavaliers at the time—played like an uncle at the park with sound fundamentals.
We think the name suits the man that creates space, takes care of the ball, and, on occasion, denies his former teammate.
The NBA Finals begin on Thursday, June 1, at 6:30 p.m., televised on ABC. The Nuggets will play either the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics.