When I was a young lawyer, a more senior attorney told me how important it was to participate in a full blown trial. Only there, he said, could I learn the importance of all the preparation we did before trial.
Basketball is similar. All players work on their games for years, and all teams spend more time on the practice court than they do in games. But all that individual and team work is mere preparation for the relatively short time spent in games.
A good argument can be made that all the regular season games are just more preparation for the playoffs. And the more playoff games a team plays, the better that team gets. In the Bubble Payoffs, the Nuggets played nineteen high-pressure games against three excellent teams — the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven of those games were close-out games for their opponents, meaning that if Denver lost, their season would be over. The Nuggets won six of those seven games. The Nuggets also got to play in two Game Sevens this season, winning both of them — after playing two Game Sevens last year, beating the Spurs in one and losing to the Trail Blazers by only four points in the other.
What a great education for the team and all of its players. Which is why the other teams in the Western Conference should be very worried about all the playoff games the young Denver Nuggets team just experienced. This young talented team will be a beast going forward, both because of their talent and because they just spent over a month getting the best possible education in the best basketball university in the world.
But for now, let’s look back on those nineteen games with appreciation for how hard and well this team played, twice battling back from 3 -1 deficits. They did it by playing hard, smart and well.
Their great young guard Jamal Murray will henceforth be included in the conversation as one of the best players in the league, joining Nikola Jokic, already recognized as a Top 10 player by being named to the all-NBA second team. Of course, it was not just those two who keyed the Nuggets remarkable run. Jerami Grant was the team’s best defender, and improved offensively throughout the playoffs. Michael Porter Jr., who missed much of the past few seasons (including his one year in college), overcame his relative inexperience with unworldly talent. Late second-round pick Monte Morris showed he could be a starting point guard for many other teams. And they did all of this without their third best player Will Barton, who averaged 15 points and 6 boards in the regular season. By the way, Barton is the oldest one of these players, at 29. This team will continue to very good, and possibly great.
1. In Saturday’s game, the Nuggets took 90 shots to the Lakers’ 77. The Nuggets took 30 three-pointers to the Lakers’ 24. Normally, that would lead to a win. But you still need to make the shots. The Lakers made 4 more shots (at 54%) and 1 more three-pointer (37%) than the Nuggets, who shot 42%/27%. You just need to make the shots.
2. Nuggets coach Mike Malone did a great job with his team. But, wow, he loves his stats more than I do, which is a lot. Every between-quarter interview, every sideline live look-in, every pregame or halftime speech includes numbers. “We shot X percent, we gave up Y offensive boards, they got Y transition baskets.” And he has those numbers available right away. The Nuggets must have great stat guys, because their coach instinctively utilizes them to frame his messages.
3. Is it just me, or have the referees thrown out the offensive interference rule for lob passes? It seems like once a game, someone throws a lob pass directly over the rim, and the offensive player dunks it straight down. No whistle. You can recognize those plays when they happen, because the defensive team’s bench players jump to their feet and wave their hands around.
4. Speaking of once a game, Murray had at least one incredible finish at the rim each game. The shot he made over, around and under LeBron James in Game Four might have been the best and most difficult finish I have ever seen. Here it is again, with thanks again to Jamal for all the entertainment he provided to us in these Bubble Playoffs.