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The Nuggets Need More Than a Moral Victory

Denver has been the “fun” upstart before, dating back to the first-round upset of the top-seeded Sonics. But to finally be taken seriously as a contender, it needs a win, not another atta boy, in Game 7.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This super-resilient, totally fun Denver Nuggets team feels familiar.

Back in 1994, the eighth-seeded Nuggets came all the way back from a 2-0 hole to take the best-of-five series against the 1-seed Seattle SuperSonics. It was the single most miraculous thing to happen to the franchise since merging with the NBA along with the rest of the ABA in 1976. The image of Dikembe Mutombo clutching the basketball in a state of rapture, right there on that beautiful green paint, became the most iconic image in Nuggets’ history.

The feeling of being a relevant basketball team—even if words like “fun” and “heart” were quickly added, so as not to confuse them with a serious basketball team—was validating. I remember tearing up and crying with Mutombo, because it felt like a true breakthrough. I hadn’t cried like that since the Nuggets traded Kiki Vandeweghe to the Trail Blazers for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, and Wayne Cooper when I was a kid. The ’94 win was historic, after all. Nobody gave Denver a chance to become the first 8-seed to upset a 1-seed. Even browbeaten Denver didn’t give Denver a chance.

The inevitable pain came in the next round against the Utah Jazz. In that series—a best of seven, which alone felt like sitting at the big kids’ table—the Nuggets fell behind 3-0, and all the dramatic music stopped. The Nuggets’ moment was over, and now the league was on to the important business. The loneliness of being a Nuggets fan crept back in.

Yet there was a desperate feeling in the gut that maybe there was a little more magic to be found. And there was, at least a little: The Nuggets won Game 4 by a single point to stay alive, and then went back to Salt Lake City and took Game 5. I still remember Jazz fans slapping their heads after Robert Pack jammed home a breakaway late. Glorious. Then the Nuggets won Game 6 in Denver behind Mutombo’s five big blocks. Somehow Denver fought all the way back to force a Game 7. Was Utah choking, or was Denver just that resilient? Whatever it was, it felt just too good to be true. Here was legitimacy—actual legitimacy—playing footsie under the table!

But the Nuggets lost a slog of a Game 7 by 10 points and that was that. A full generation went by. Nobody remembers the valiant near-comeback against the Jazz. “Near” wiped that series from the ever-unfurling scroll of great teams and great games and great players. Beating the Sonics in the first round was the golden moment for a team that has clung desperately to silver linings and moral victories since the beginning.

It’s true that the Carmelo Anthony–led Nuggets made it to the Western Conference finals in 2009—the second and only other time the Nuggets have made it that far in 45 years—but the image of Mutombo lying on the court, exalting in the improbability of winning a series nobody expected his team to win, is the enduring image of the Denver Nuggets. A cute team, a fun team, a team with a lot of heart. Yet—God bless ’em—really just a group of lovable overachievers that will soon crash back down to earth.

That’s why Tuesday’s Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers is impossibly big for Nuggets fans. It’s pathetic how big it seems, and how apprehensive a fan can become of the pending emotional tolls. Last year, as a surprise 2-seed, the Nuggets were supposed to beat the Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals and didn’t. This year, as the 3-seed, they are expected to lose in the semis and are fighting deliriously to do otherwise. This is a rare moment for the Nuggets to do something special.

For everybody else, it’s just about time to pat the Nuggets on the head again and get on with the big L.A. vs L.A. matchup that has been teased since the season kicked off nearly a year ago. The Nuggets are an unwelcome guest to the party, the surprise team on the bubble within the bubble. They are in the position to spoil a potential ratings bonanza because, let’s face it, the Nuggets are the Nuggets. They’ve never really become anything more. In Denver, the Broncos remain the heart and soul of the city and are celebrated even during lean years. The Avalanche have won two Stanley Cups, and therefore are forever thought of as a winner. Even the Colorado Rockies made a cameo in the World Series in 2007, just 14 years after becoming a Major League Baseball team.

The Nuggets have already defied all 20 experts at ESPN who picked the Clippers to close out the series inside of six games, but getting to Game 7 can’t be the grand prize. Moral victories are for the old Nuggets.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

This time, like in 1994, Denver again fell behind to the Jazz—but then came back from a 3-1 hole to win the first-round series. Instead of Mutombo swatting Shawn Kemp, it was Jamal Murray outgunning Donovan Mitchell. That three-game stretch when Murray scored 142 points felt cathartic for fans of a team that has forever needed a clutch player. Anthony took the Nuggets to the playoffs on seven different occasions between 2003-10, but he never had a stretch when he put the team on his back like that. It should also be noted that Anthony got Denver past the first round only once. Murray, who has now pushed the Nuggets into the second round two years in a row, is a reason to believe.

But when the Nuggets first got to the Clippers, the head-patting started before the series began. The Jazz didn’t have the defenders to slow Murray down and were instead forced to outscore him. But the Clippers were nasty, perfectly assembled for a deep run in the playoffs. They had stars, they had attitude, and they had lengthy limbs that became dense thickets in passing lanes. Murray wouldn’t be allowed to drop 50, and Nikola Jokic would have to earn everything he got. They’d need Paul Millsap to look less creaky, and Michael Porter Jr. to grow up before our eyes, and Gary Harris to be at his defensive best.

The Nuggets would need a miracle, in other words, and that’s why TNT’s Charles Barkley can’t help himself from guaranteeing Clippers’ victories. If I’m being honest, I never thought the Nuggets would compete against the Clippers, either. I hoped they would, but let’s just say the mid-market Nuggets are always facing an uphill battle. Besides, if you watch Murray’s Jekyll and Hyde routine long enough, you begin to live in fear of the evil Hyde. There are also times when Jokic’s shoes seem to be made of concrete, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence … and don’t even get me started about living and dying with Jerami Grant’s shooting down the stretch.

Still, somehow, Denver has ended up making a series of it. In games 5 and 6 they erased 16- and 19-point deficits, respectively. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, even though Jokic has been at his best. Murray has been mostly Dr. Jekyll in clutch time. Porter had his petulant moments, but has grown up a little bit before our eyes: After complaining that he wasn’t getting enough touches after the Game 4 loss, he responded by making the most of his limited opportunities, knocking down a key 3-pointer to put away the Clips in Game 5. Millsap even got in the face of Marcus Morris in Game 5 for one of those unsung moments that turned things around. Frustration switched sides, and the Nuggets took on an even more defiant attitude after the Game 6 comeback.

“We’ve always felt we were good enough,” coach Michael Malone said. “No one else does, but we don’t listen to the noise. We’ve always had the internal belief in ourselves and in our collective group that we’re good enough to win a championship. And we find it fun that the narrative is, ‘Oh, the Nuggets are a cute team. What a good story.’ We were second in the West last year. We were one possession away from going to the Western Conference finals.”

As a diehard Nuggets fan, these developments have been unexpected and exhilarating. Also as a diehard Nuggets fan, I can’t help but feel like this is all a big setup to have my guts ripped out, and that the Nuggets fought all the way back just to make their exit a little more devastating.

Denver has never been good at maintaining extraordinary play, which makes their 5-0 record in elimination games in the playoff bubble both awesome and hard to digest. I can’t help but share in the cynicism that the Nuggets are not a title contender, or that they even belong in this series. When they’re bad, as they were in games 1 and 4, they look really bad. When the offense goes cold, they look disjointed and unsure of how to get out of the funk. At times the defense goes missing altogether. Even for a guy who believes (oftentimes irrationally) in his team, I, too, can hear the rasping sounds of a Clippers team choking if I listen hard enough. It’s easier to comprehend the juggernaut choking than it is to make the case that the Nuggets are just as good.

Still, the facts are what they are: The Nuggets got back in this series by refusing to die. They did it against the Jazz, and now they’re doing it against the Clippers. There’s a lot to appreciate about this squad. It’s the most talented Nuggets team since the Billups-Melo team in the late 2000s, better than Mutombo’s 1990s teams or Alex English’s high-scoring teams of the 1980s. It very well could be the best Nuggets team of all time. If they win Tuesday night, that argument could easily be made.

But everyone expected—or still expects—Denver to lose. They are seven-and-a-half-point underdogs in Game 7, which is actually one of the closer lines of the series. If the Nuggets meet those expectations and become a part of this franchise’s unfortunate legacy, years from now the only thing that’ll be remembered about this postseason will be Murray and Mitchell’s epic shootout. That would be a silver lining to a season that once again came up short, from a franchise that forever mines silver linings from some other team’s special season.

And who knows what next season will look like. The Murray-Jokic-Porter core is set, but with the aging Millsap certainly gone and key defense-minded energy guys like Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, and Jerami Grant all likely to become free agents, the Nuggets could look very different in 2021. This team has a chemistry that can sometimes cover up shortcomings. I thought the ’94 Nuggets would return stronger than ever in ’95, and yet they went 41-41 and got swept by the Spurs in the first round.

That’s why moral victories don’t mean anything on Tuesday.

If the Nuggets are to break tradition—if they want to keep Barkley and the national media from patting their heads, and if they want to replace that Mutombo image that captured something improbable some 26 years ago—they need to do what everybody seems to be hoping they can’t. They need to win Game 7 in this highly visible series like it was theirs all along—not as a spoiler of the L.A. vs L.A. scenario, but more as a team that won’t be denied.

It’s always nice to hear your team called “resilient” and “fun,” but these terms are nothing more than familiar consolations for Nuggets fans. The only words that a long-suffering fan base longs to hear on late Tuesday night is that the Denver Nuggets are for real.