Turns out, seeding is kind of important. Heading down the stretch of the regular season, the Nuggets and Trail Blazers could've ended up anywhere from the No. 2 to No. 4 seed. Actually, Portland could've wound up No. 5. But both teams fought to not cancel out a year of good work. The Blazers won eight of their last 10 to seal the No. 3 seed by virtue of a tiebreaker. The Nuggets won three of their last four and sealed the No. 2 seed on the last day of the season, by one game.
Now they're facing each other instead of the Warriors.
While the Rockets wound up at No. 4 and now have to go through the champs in the second round, the Nuggets, coming off their wild Game 7 win over San Antonio on Saturday, and the Blazers are set to meet with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line. At the start of this season, I'd venture to say almost nobody had either one of these teams making the conference finals. But they earned their seed. A path opened up. And now here they are.
This is also a lesson in perseverance. Staying the course. Continuity within an organization. Not many teams do that anymore. Either they don't choose to, or they don't have the luxury to. It's all about quick face-lifts. A team isn't contending for a championship, you shake it all up. Make a trade. Get the big free agent. Fire the coach.
All the while, the Blazers have been a really solid team for a long time: Seven straight playoff appearances in the mighty Western Conference, a top-five seed six of those years, the No. 3 seed the last two. Every year they're the team people want to tear down. You can't win with that small of a backcourt, people say. They don't play defense. Damian Lillard isn't a championship-level star (LOL). Terry Stotts isn't making any progress. The second Jusuf Nukic went down, once again, everyone bet against the Blazers.
Everyone, except the Blazers.
Denver hasn't been at it as long as Portland, but a similar picture is filling in. A young team growing together. Failing, but not being quick to turn the page. Mike Malone came to Denver in 2015. They won 33 games that season, a small improvement over their 30 the season prior. The next two seasons, they missed the playoffs by one game. Last year they lost their spot in a head-to-head play-in game with Minnesota on the last day of the season.
During those three seasons, the Nuggets did sign Paul Millsap in 2017 -- a good but no longer great player -- but other than that, they're doing this with homegrown guys. They drafted Jamal Murray. Drafted Gary Harris. Drafted Nikola Jokic. They signed Torrey Craig out of the Queensland Basketball League in Australia. That's the starting lineup that has this team with home-court advantage with a trip to the conference finals directly in sight.
Outside of Millsap, who came to Denver as an All-Star-caliber player, the dramatic individual improvement of every one of those guys is what led to the improvement of the Nuggets. They just stuck with it. Stuck with their guys. Partly because they're not a marquee free-agent destination, but also because they knew they were building something. If anyone understands the value of continuity and staying together, it's Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
"They've been together a few years and it's starting to show," Pop said of the Nuggets after his team's Game 7 loss.
"To me, it was really simple: The reason we had missed the playoffs two years in a row was because we were a bottom-five defensive team," Malone said. "[We were] an elite offensive team but we couldn't guard anybody. We were last in 3-point defense last year. To go from 30th to first in 3-point defense [this season] is remarkable, and that's our players buying in, committing. I take great pride in that improvement.
"[But] We have a hell of a challenge waiting for us. A [Portland] team that's been resting, getting ready, and Damian Lillard right now is playing at a whole other level."
Uh, that's one way of putting it.
Another would be to say Lillard is currently burning the entire basketball world to the ground. The Nuggets are the higher seed and they earned that, and it'll help. In a series that feels like something close to a coin flip, they'll get the first two games and a potential Game 7 at home. The Blazers lost both games in Denver this season, and Jokic could be a particularly big problem for the Blazers without Nurkic. Enes Kanter was pretty darn good in the first round against OKC, not just relative to his lackluster defensive reputation but really by any standards, but Jokic isn't just a different offensive beast than Steven Adams -- he's a whole other species.
But that's for Monday night at 10:30 p.m. ET: Game 1 of Blazers-Nuggets (watch on fuboTV).
For now, the Nuggets and Blazers should both be extremely proud of what they've already accomplished, and what is realistically still in sight. Again, everyone wrote off Portland when Nurkic went down. The vast majority of experts picked the Thunder to beat them. The Nuggets trailed by 19 in Game 2 against the Spurs and came back to win. They led by 17 in Game 7 and nearly blew it. This is a baptism by fire. Most of these Nuggets have never seen the playoffs, let alone a Game 7 against a portrait of playoff experience in the Spurs. That was not a normal 2 vs. 7 series. That was a big-time win for Denver.
"This was a really hard-fought series," Malone said. "Evenly matched. I think if we played 20 times, it'd be 10-10. But I loved the grit we played with. We never lost our composure. For a young team to step up and make plays down the stretch. Really, really happy and proud of our guys. It's a hell of a moment."