The Denver Nuggets lack the game's best player, its best duo, its highest expectations, its most pedigreed history — that belongs to two of the other three remaining playoff teams — nor its best odds to finish off this amazing postseason run with a championship.
But they are its toughest team, mentally and in the moments that define greatness. And how far that can still take them remains very much in play.
That's a fact after the Nuggets' win Tuesday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, one in which the underdog fended off a fourth quarter Lakers surge to secure a 114-106 victory and draw their series to down just 2-1. It was a night that told the tale of their entire offseason.
They may seem outmatched, outplayed, and down in a series in which no one outside Denver gives them a chance. But they fight like hell. Those back-to-back 3-1 series deficits this young team erased against the Jazz and the Clippers in the first and second rounds of these playoffs weren't anomalies. They were the anatomy of a group that never stops fighting, one tough and talented enough, for at least a night, to take it to LeBron James and his Lakers.
That's a sign of great things to come in Denver, whether this year or not until the years ahead. You can't teach fortitude late in games, heartbreak after heartbreak, or the hard-earned muscle memory of winning series after series, big game after big game.
Ask the Rockets. Ask the Clippers. The graveyard of this and other seasons for promising teams is filled with stars and would-be champs who couldn't match the heart — or poise — of this until-recently under-heralded, young Denver Nuggets team.
Jamal Murray put up 28 points, including a fourth-quarter dagger of a floating step-back 3-pointer over Anthony Daivs, and dished out 12 assists, including a key dime to Paul Millsap over that same late-game span. It was vintage playoff greatness for a player still at the start of what he'll be in this league.
Nikola Jokic had 22 and 10, gutting out another tough and impressive game as Denver built, and then nearly lost, a 20-point lead, just days after the talk was how Dwight Howard owned him, and thus his team. That, too, has turned out to be silliness put aside, another marker to not seeing Denver or its stars for what they are: Legit.
And guys like Jerami Grant (a career-high 26 points), Millsap (energy and leadership) and Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris (bench points and rebounding) stepped up to help their two rising superstars.
The totality of all of this was a Denver team that wanted it more than the Lakers, and that took it to them and from them.
They out-rebounded L.A., 44-25. They outworked them. They held the Lakers to 6-of-23 shooting from deep. They looked more battle-tested and tougher — including Jamal Murray's Flagrant One on his chin shot to LeBron, a cheap shot, maybe, but one that set a tone for the game the Lakers matched only late, when it was too late.
Denver was more focused, they were better, and as a result, they're right in this thing.
It's a single night of basketball, yes. It's one game, sure, against a star in LeBron who has never lost a series after going up 2-0 and who feasts on the next supposed LeBron-slayer. But it's also a sign: The Nuggets may not — we'll see — be good enough to beat the Lakers this year in a seven-game series. But they are tough enough. They believe they're good enough. And that's something you can build on. It means, someday, they're likely to be.
And this win, this halving of the series, was a different kind of victory. The conference finals feel different. There's an energy to it, and a fear that can set in. Playing LeBron is different. A.D. is different. And pulling yourself up in that scenario against those guys after that heartbreaker of a buzzer-beating loss in Game 2 takes real Moxy, real strength, real guts.
There are two ways to look at what will follow now in this series.
The first is that of the Denver optimist, believer, or fan, and goes something like this: After the Dwight-Howard-owns-Jokic illusion in Game 1, the Lakers, like everyone else, have their hands full with the big man. Anthony Davis vanished in this game, his 27 points notwithstanding, with his paltry two rebounds and at-time passive play. The Lakers had no help for their superstars, outside Rajon Rondo, who, impressive though he has been, will not be enough. Murray is unfazed, clearly, and can be counted on with the weight of a season pressing down on his shoulders. And a win in Game 4 means the Nuggets confidence coming off all they've accomplished this offseason could cascade and power them forward the rest of the way.
The Lakers-surely-win worldview can be boiled down to something like this: LeBron James.
We'll see which it is. The Lakers still lead 2-1. But Denver was blown out in Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series against the Jazz, and in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series against the Clippers. We all know what happened from there. It turns out, those dominating games to go up, or lead to, a 2-0 series lead over the Nuggets let to a whole lot of hollow certainty about the Nuggets.
Denver was also that A.D. buzzer beater in Game 2 away from victory, meaning, outside that Game 1 blowout, they've shown they can beat L.A. twice, even if they only came away with one win.
Denver is tough. They are resilient. They believe.
And after Tuesday, the notion they're simply not good enough to beat this Lakers team has yet to be extinguished.