By Eddie Pells/AP
Everything from the history books to the way they’ve played through most of the postseason suggests the Denver Nuggets are on the verge of capturing their first NBA title in 47 years in the league.
The goal now for Denver is to not let up against the Miami Heat on Monday in what will be the first title-clinching opportunity in franchise history.
“My biggest concern going into any close-out game is human nature and fighting against that,” coach Michael Malone said Sunday after practice. “Most teams, when you’re up 3-1, they come up for air.”
Malone's mission to keep the Nuggets thinking about hoops, not that trophy, could be helped by the fact that Miami's only win in this series came a week ago in Denver. Also, the Heat have won seven road games during the postseason and are 2-0 when they've faced elimination — against Chicago in the play-in tournament and at Boston in Game 7 of the conference finals.
When the teams left Denver a week ago, the series was tied at 1 and Malone was grilling the Nuggets over effort after a 111-108 loss. Now that it’s 3-1, after two double-digit wins in Miami, it’s clear Nikola Jokic and Co., received the message.
On Sunday, the coach tapped into his own team's recent history — the Nuggets overcame 3-1 deficits twice to win two series in the bubble in 2020 — to emphasize that this series isn't over yet.
“We've been down 3-1. We've come back and won. We know anything is possible,” Malone said.
Nobody needed to convince the Heat of that.
Coach Erik Spoelstra called his team “a very stubborn and defiant group.” And when asked about the confidence the Heat players had in each other, even after putting themselves in what has historically been a near-impossible situation, Jimmy Butler said: “At an all-time high.”
Only one of 36 teams that have fallen behind 3-1 in the history of the finals has come back to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy. That was the 2016 Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, who trailed Golden State 3-1 before running off three straight, including the finale in Oakland in a game that goes down as one of the best in finals history.
The 1993 Suns and 1998 Jazz were down 3-1 and both managed to win Game 5 in Chicago. In both instances, Michael Jordan and the Bulls wrapped up the series in Game 6s on the road.
Among the few hints revealed about Xs and Os during these day-before news conferences was the effectiveness of Denver's improving D around the 3-point line. Malone tore into his team after Miami made 17 3-pointers in Game 2, many of them unguarded after the Heat exploited confusion in the Nuggets' switching defense.
Miami made 11 3s in Game 3 (when the Nuggets got triple-doubles from both Jokic and Jamal Murray) then only eight in Game 4 (when Aaron Gordon showed off the team's depth by leading the team with 27 points).
“You have to have an aggressive mindset to be an effective defensive team,” Malone said. “But if you don’t have communication and discipline to go along with that, I think you’re going to be missing some really key components.”
Spoelstra said Denver's shift in defense — having players fight through picks instead of switching on the perimeter — did, in fact, make a difference. Still, he insisted, it's nothing Miami hasn't seen a hundred times by now.
“That’s what the deal is," Spoelstra said. “They are trying to take away certain things. We are trying to get to certain things. (It's about) how can you get to it and how can you get to it on your terms.”
Spoelstra offered no clues regarding the recurring mystery in this series — whether 20-point-a-game scorer Tyler Herro might be returning from a broken hand.
“No new update,” Spoelstra said. “He’s doing another contact workout today. I probably won’t have anything for you tomorrow morning.”
Even with all their focus on unfinished business on the court, the Nuggets front office spent the weekend looking toward the future. ESPN reported an under-the-radar trade involving draft picks, in which Denver gave up a protected 2029 first-rounder in exchange for one of Oklahoma City's first-rounders in 2024.
It was a subtle acknowledgment that the Nuggets, with Jokic, Murray, Gordon and Michael Porter Jr., all signed to big contracts, are looking at adding affordable talent sooner rather than later in an effort to keep their current championship window open.
Never in their history — which dates back to the founding of the ABA in 1967, then their move to the NBA nine years after that — has anyone on the Nuggets been caught thinking about multiple titles, let alone one.
“It’s just nice to see us be a big family and understand what it takes to win,” Murray said. “But yeah, it’s been a journey, a lot of fun. We have got more work to do.”
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