Obviously I wasn’t watching the game objectively, so all the sus calls/non-calls down the stretch of Game Two that doomed the Nuggets against Miami turned into conniptions in my living room, but — I have say — losing the game didn’t really hurt. Not like it should have, anyway.
For one thing the Denver Nuggets have been at their worst in moments when they feel good about themselves. They tend to sleepwalk for a few quarters after a good ego fete, especially the drippiest guys like Michael Porter Jr. They did it in a loss in the opening round against Minnesota in Game Four before pouring it on to close out the series in Denver. During the regular season there were plenty of times Denver didn’t entirely show up for one reason or another. Complacency can be a bitch.
That’s something to keep in mind as the series now stands at 1-1, and with Miami commandeering home court from the best home team in basketball. The other is a more zeroed-in version of the first thing, and really the very thing that gives me a sense of security: When people start to believe in the other team’s chances, Denver takes it personally. They get pissed off. That’s when they really show up.
The greatest music we’ll hear over the next couple of days will be that Miami is a resilient team with a hodgepodge of contributors stepping up out of nowhere on a given night, and that they have a real chance of winning. And the truth is, they do. If Miami keeps shooting like they did in Game Two and making Jokic shoot the ball rather than getting all his guys humming in unison, the Heat can definitely win the series. No team is above disruption, and the Heat are a nagging gang of haywire specialists who believe in themselves.
But if this season’s Denver team holds to form, the Heat won’t win the series. Not if the Nuggets sense they’re being disrespected.
The best thing about facing Phoenix in the second round of the playoffs was that national media, casual fans and the Vegas book had the Suns winning it. Michael Malone would mention to any reporter in his vicinity that Phoenix — with the deadline addition of Kevin Durant — was meant to go to the Finals, and that the Nuggets were merely going to find out if they have any say in that. Next thing you know Jokic is wrestling a basketball away from Suns’ owner Matt Ishbia’s hands, and the Nuggets are dancing at the Footprint Center after eliminating the Suns in six.
Drawing the Lakers in the Western Conference finals was even better for a team built with this kind of mentality. If you’ve been in Denver for any period of time you know that the Lakers have owned the Denver Nuggets. They’d gone 5-0 against Denver in the playoffs, including 3-0 in previous WCFs. For that reason, all the yellow sporting LA transplants in Denver show up to Ball Arena like the cocky bastards that they are whenever the Lakers come through.
All of that made the chip on Denver’s shoulder sizeable heading into this year’s WCF. There was no way these Nuggets were going to let that continue. And they didn’t. They ripped the Lakers heart out and celebrated a sweep on LA’s home floor. Glorious.
Which brings us to this series. The first game against Miami was a historic event for Denver, a team playing in its first NBA finals and riding its own euphoric wave into unchartered territory. That got them through the first game fine. But Game Two always felt a little dangerous…like a minefield that would have to be navigated. Miami and Denver don’t have a history. There’s no inherent bad blood (even with the Jokic/Markieff Morris incident from last season). Denver doesn’t hate Jimmy Butler like it does Anthony Davis or LeBron. Most didn’t know Duncan Robinson from Duncan Sheik.
Worse, the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla had written a column declaring the series over after the first game. National media was talking about Jokic in historical context. The love for Jamal Murray was becoming uncomfortable, and Aaron Gordon was the unsung hero of all unsung heroes. The home court advantage was being talked about in gasping tones, with X-factors like the high altitude showing up regularly in conversations, groping for some kind of basis in fact.
No, it was all a set-up.
Denver is a team that needs a good amount of doubt to function at its sublime best. They feed off neglect, shortsightedness, and all those fickle pundits who jump ship at the first sign of trouble. A slap in the face is what Denver loves most, and Miami gave them one. I hope everyone sings Miami’s praises for the next couple of days and that those few inevitable voices predicting the Heat are on their way to becoming the greatest underdog story in sports history make their way into the Nuggets locker room.
Gimme that, and all will be fine.