Can the Denver Nuggets Shock the Basketball World and Reach the NBA Finals?

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Updated: March 1, 2019
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It’s been a rough decade in Denver.

We’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of the Nuggets’ last season with a playoff series win – when Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, George Karl led Denver to the Western Conference Finals, where they bowed out to the eventual World Champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.

First round playoff exits followed in the next four seasons, followed by the departure of all the names listed above. A five-year playoff drought followed.

However, Denver quietly began building a team with several high draft picks and made a splash by surprisingly signing free agent power forward Paul Millsap prior to the 2017-18 season.

That year, Denver finished six games above .500, but finished ninth in the competitive West and was left outside the playoff party.

Well, the drought is ending this year. As the calendar flips to March, the upstart Nuggets are neck-and-neck with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors, a team that’s reached the NBA Finals four-straight years (winning three of them).

After smooth sailing for much of the season, the team struggled on defense (allowing an average of 127 points in three losses) going into the All-Star break while Millsap was out with an injury. The team has stabilized since Millsap returned, and Denver is 10-0 in the last 10 games in which he’s played.

A quick glance at the box scores makes it appear that Millsap’s production has gone down. While that might be true on the stat sheet, he’s emerged as a leader in head coach Michael Malone’s young locker room.

“He’s our leader,” Malone said of Millsap, whose intangibles led Denver to a win over West power Oklahoma City this week.

The resurgence of the Nuggets – led in scoring and rebounding by 7-foot center Nikola Jokic – has been a nice story this season, but for it to be truly memorable, Denver needs to knock off some teams in the playoffs.

If the season ended today, the Warriors would narrowly edge Denver for the top seed. Denver would be the 2-seed and host the veteran-laden and grizzled playoff veteran San Antonio Spurs. This would not be your typical 2 vs. 7 match-up. While the Spurs aren’t what the were five years ago, they would still provide more of a formidable challenge than a normal 7-seed would, especially when facing a team stocked with so many playoff newcomers.

If Denver could pass that challenge, the team would likely face one of these four teams who are very close in 3-6 seed: Oklahoma City, Portland, Houston, or Utah. Each would provide a challenge, but Denver would still enjoy home court advantage.

But the key to shocking the world and reaching the NBA Finals lies in snatching the No. 1 seed away from Golden State. While Denver is 27-4 inside the Pepsi Center, they are barely a .500 team (15-14) away from it. A series against the Warriors as a 2-seed would mean that the Nuggets would be forced to win at least one (and probably two) games at Oracle Arena. Could a young team that’s struggled on the road pull off such a feat? Golden State would be heavily favored in the series if they are able to hold onto home court advantage. They would also probably be favored if a potential Game 7 is played in Denver, but the Nuggets would be better positioned to win the series.

Upstart teams generally don’t see playoff success against dynasty teams in the NBA – for proof of that, look no further than all the pretenders who fell to Miami or Cleveland during LeBron James’ reign over the Eastern Conference over the past decade. But if the Nuggets and Warriors clash in May, it will provide for some entertaining games and good David vs. Goliath-like drama as both teams battle to reach the NBA Finals.

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