DENVER — Bring on LeBron.
If King James and the Lakers think they’re going to stroll through the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, they’ve got another thing coming. The Nuggets late Tuesday night delivered a Game 7 message to the rest of the NBA: Nuggets 104, Clippers 89. Final.
The cute story of a team that rose from the ashes is over now. The Nuggets are real, live NBA championship contenders — now and from now on.
“This is a moment, it’s my birthday, and we’re going to go party,” freshly minted 49-year-old Nuggets coach Michael Malone said late Tuesday from the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Game 1 against the Lakers is Friday. It’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray vs. James and Anthony Davis. It’s Butler vs. Duke in the NCAA title game. It’s the Bad News Bears vs. basketball royalty.
“We built this thing from the ground up,” Murray said after pouring in 25 of his 40 points in the first half against the Clippers.
Here’s the funny thing about the Nuggets kicking the Clippers straight out of the bubble. They didn’t just beat a roster loaded for bear with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the court and Doc Rivers on the sideline. The Nuggets beat the entire NBA system. The Clippers built a championship threat in roughly five months, recruiting both Leonard and George to flash their inevitable rings in the sunshine of Southern California. The Nuggets did it the hard way. They drafted and developed their way to a conference finals appearance. They drafted Jokic in the second round. They’ve gone from 33 wins in Malone’s first season to 40 wins to 46 wins to 54 wins. They reached the conference semifinals last year, the conference finals this year. They never tanked for lofty draft picks. They never cut corners.
The Nuggets took the NBA mold and threw it in the kiln. Out came Jokic, who averaged 24.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists to outplay Leonard, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and George. Out came Murray, who might be the only bubble resident who actually likes being stuck around hoops 24/7. Murray’s 40 points came after he took a nasty non-call in Game 6, with manic defender Patrick Beverley draped on his every move and in a Game 7.
And in true Nuggets fashion, Murray promptly shifted the spotlight to a teammate, Jokic.
“He’s incredible,” Murray said of the Joker. “He plays with such joy.”
The Nuggets are the first team to recover from a pair of 3-1 deficits in league history. They’ve won six straight elimination games. They didn’t get the memo this is not how the NBA works.
“Not only am I excited about this moment,” Malone said. “I’m really excited about what’s to come.”
To secure a date with the Lakers, Malone and the Nuggets climbed a mountain. Rivers and the Clippers had to roll the ball out. The Nuggets didn’t just beat the Clippers. They beat the whole dang system.