In retrospect, the notion that these NBA playoffs would be wide open and there for any team’s taking seems silly now, amusing even.
When two of the top four seeds, the No. 1 Bucks and No. 2 Grizzlies, bowed out in the opening round, the idea spread that it was anybody’s trophy to win, that LeBron James’ seventh-seeded Lakers could go on a magical run to the title or Stephen Curry and the No. 6 Warriors could repeat. The Celtics, 76ers and Heat were all contenders, supposedly.
Everyone was ignoring the powerhouse from the Mile High City. The team that won 53 regular season games despite getting only 65 games out of Jamal Murray as co-star alongside one of the premier players in the sport, Nikola Jokic. The team that didn’t mess around, like the Celtics, or slip up, like the 76ers, or run out of gas, like the Lakers.
Really, what we have seen through the postseason shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Nuggets improved to 15-4 in the playoffs after a commanding 108-95 victory Friday night over the Heat in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Kaseya Center. moving within one win of their first ever title. Denver, which moved within one win of its first title, already boasts by far the best net rating of the playoffs, at plus-8.2 (points by which it outscores the opposition per 100 possessions), five points better than the No. 2 team, Boston. And now seven of the Nuggets’ last nine playoff wins have come by double figures, and all three in the finals.
The Heat, without what feels now like a fluky fourth quarter that helped them win Game 2, might already have been swept. Denver has been that much better in this series, just as it was so clearly superior to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The Heat entered the Finals 6-2 at home, and didn’t hold a single second-half lead in either Game 3 or 4. The contests were that one-sided. Miami’s fourth-quarter playoff mastery seems gone for good, the “Zombie Heat” nickname no longer relevant.
The Nuggets’ big two of Jokic and Murray put on an awesome offensive display in Game 3, the first two teammates in NBA history to produce 30-point triple doubles in the same game. On Friday, defense set the tone, stifling the Heat most of the evening, limiting them to 8-for-25 shooting from 3-point range and forcing them into 15 turnovers.
Defense has been a major factor in Denver’s brilliant run. The Nuggets were an average defensive team during the regular season, 15th in the league in defensive rating (113.5). They are now fifth in the playoffs at 111.1. They don’t have to outscore teams on the rare occasion the league’s top-rated offense this postseason isn’t humming.
Jokic had to sit for five minutes in the fourth quarter when the game was still in the balance, and it didn’t matter. Role players such as Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown, a former Net who was allowed to walk for no apparent reason other than the stars who ran the show didn’t like him, stepped up. Gordon and Brown combined for 48 points.
Denver caught some breaks along the way, aided by upsets. It didn’t have to deal with the Grizzlies or the Celtics, giving the past two series a feeling of inevitability. But that’s not the Nuggets’ fault. They took care of business, while the other favorites did not.
It has been a wild postseason, an extended version of March Madness. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks went down early. So did Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. An eighth seed reached the NBA Finals for just the second time. Four lower seeds pulled first-round upsets.
Ultimately, however, the cream rose to the top, and did so convincingly. The Nuggets should finish this out Monday night back in Denver, and nobody will be surprised. They’ve been the best team in the sport from the outset of the playoffs and they have proven it against the two teams, the Lakers and Heat, that created so much of the upheaval of the first three rounds. No team has come close to sending Denver packing, though, and it doesn’t appear any team will.