LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla: Just about everyone had LA vs. LA written in for the Western Conference finals.
Then along came the resilient Denver Nuggets, who crashed the party. Behind Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 2009. They will face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers starting Friday in Game 1.
But this was no ordinary road. The Nuggets fell behind 3-1 in their first-round series against Utah before bouncing back with three straight victories. Then they went down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round before winning in Game 7 again.
They made history, too, becoming the first NBA team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit twice in the same postseason. As expected, Denver is an underdog against the Lakers. Murray & Co. are used to it.
“Everybody counts us out. It’s fun to silence everybody,” Murray said. “We love it.”
The last time the Nuggets were in the conference finals they faced the Lakers as well, losing in six games. That squad was coached by George Karl and boasted Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony. The Lakers were led by the late Kobe Bryant and would go on to win the NBA title over Orlando. This time, Denver features a play-making point guard in Murray and a center who thinks of himself as a point guard in Jokic.
Combined, they've helped the Nuggets go 6-0 in elimination games this postseason. Pressure doesn't bother them.
“It’s just fun, the journey,” Jokic said. “This is an interesting team. We don’t have many superstars.”
Actually, they have two burgeoning stars in Murray and Jokic. In the Game 7 win over the Clippers, Murray scored 40 points while Jokic finished with 16 points, 13 assists and 22 rebounds.
The Nuggets are playing with an abundance of confidence, no matter the deficit. They were down by double digits in Games 5, 6 and 7 but came back to win each time.
“We are not accepting that someone is better than us,” said Jokic, whose squad beat San Antonio last season in Game 7 before losing to Portland in seven games. “They really need to beat us and need to play much better than us. ... When we start playing for each other and you see the ball is flowing and the defense and everybody has everyone's back, it's really fun.”
Denver certainly quieted the noise around the Clippers, who hoped the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would lead them to their first-ever conference finals — and beyond. But LA’s stars fell flat.
“It hurts. It hurts. But we move on,” George said. “Year 1 together, first run together, of course we wanted to win this. But we’ve been very optimistic about us being together and building something going down the road.”
After a quick celebration Tuesday — of the win and coach Michael Malone's 49th birthday — the Nuggets will be ready to get back to business.
“We know what we got,” Murray said. “We're a top-four team in the league and we're trying to push to be No. 1. ... We've got a squad that we believe in each other and know we can go out there and win it.”