The Denver Nuggets are for real. Just when you’re ready to write them off, they shock the NBA world, and they’ve been doing this for two seasons running now. So why doubt them as a legitimate NBA Finals contender.
In Thursday’s clinching 126-115 Game 6 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver didn’t waver when the hosts went on a shooting tear early. Michael Porter Jr. countered some of that with an insane 22-point first quarter, yet with less than five minutes left in the third quarter, the Nuggets trailed 93-79.
Guess what happened from there? The visitors put the clamps down on defense, shutting down Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and quieting the raucous Moda Center crowd, handing Blazers fans a bitter first-round playoff exit. The hosts scored just 14 fourth-quarter points.
So, as if that resilience isn’t reason enough to endorse the Nuggets, here are three reasons they can definitely make a run to the 2021 NBA Finals.
Denver Nuggets have shrugged off Orlando bubble hangover
It was a quick turnaround for the new season from the NBA playoffs. Near the midpoint of a shortened, 72-game season, the Nuggets’ record was at 17-15 in late February.
Then came the time to turn on the jets. Denver picked up its play on the defensive end, and Nikola Jokic proved himself to be a worthy NBA MVP finalist as he did not miss a single contest the for the entire 2020-21 campaign.
Every other team that went deep in the bubble? Well, the Miami Heat got swept by the Milwaukee Bucks, so they were obviously a little gassed after their surprise run to the NBA Finals. Part of the reason Miami drew the Bucks in Round 1 was its slow start off that Finals trip.
The reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers saw Anthony Davis and LeBron James miss lots of time in the regular season with injuries, and they were the West’s seventh seed as a result.
High expectations followed the Boston Celtics into this season following their Conference Finals bubble run. They managed one win against the Brooklyn Nets without Jaylen Brown before bowing out. Their team president Danny Ainge retired, and head coach Brad Stevens took his place. The Celtics are a mind-boggling mess right now.
So the bubble essentially broke every conference finalist from 2020 except for Denver. How impressive is that?
Michael Porter Jr. is more than making up for Jamal Murray injury
Amazingly, when Jamal Murray suffered a torn ACL on April 12, it became a setback that these Nuggets somehow rallied around.
We’re talking about a guy in Murray who was key in helping Denver rally from a 3-1 conference semifinals deficit to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2020, and an explosive playmaker who outdueled Donovan Mitchell just to get the Nuggets out of the first round last year.
But when Murray went down, something else came out of that adversity: Michael Porter Jr. rose to the occasion. He embraced the chance to shine as the Robin to Jokic’s Batman, and Porter proved he was for real in Thursday’s Game 6.
Denver coughed up numerous turnovers in the opening quarter, and the Blazers were scalding-hot coming out of the gates. The thing is, Porter was an absolute flamethrower from 3-point land, canning six treys to keep the Nuggets within striking distance.
What has to be exciting for Denver is that Porter is only beginning to realize his potential. There’s no obvious ceiling to how high he can ascend as a player. That makes the Nuggets super dangerous, and gives them someone they can really count on other than Jokic.
Now, following that hot start to Game 6, Porter dropped off completely the rest of the way. Should he learn a quick lesson from that, it’ll make Denver all the more dangerous.
Nikola Jokic is the MVP who can carry Denver Nuggets in wide-open West
The reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers and highly-regarded Clippers, as of this writing, are on the brink of first-round elimination. The Dallas Mavericks don’t have anyone you can truly count on in the playoffs other than Luka Doncic.
Oh, and the top-seeded Utah Jazz have a core of players entering uncharted territory as they try to live up to their status as the NBA’s best regular-season team. Are they equipped to handle the pressure that comes with that?
Look, Jokic has stayed healthy all season while other stars have either taken heavy rests, or gotten injured and missed extended time. He makes everyone around him better, and even when the Nuggets are trailing, there’s always a sense that the ever-reliable Jokic can will them back somehow. It happens Thursday, and it was far from the first time.
Just about every team in the West has so much to lose this postseason. Similar to last postseason, the Nuggets are playing with house money. They don’t have Murray, but that may not matter. Time and again, Jokic is the catalyst for leading them out of uncertain times.
These Denver Nuggets aren’t going anywhere, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if Jokic, who should absolutely be named NBA MVP, leads them to an NBA Finals berth.