The anti-super teams: Nuggets, like Heat, refreshing reminder titles can be won by collectives

Nikola Jokić was in search of a way to describe the special vibe his Nuggets had in Game 3. Often he’s singularly great. In this series against the Lakers, Jamal Murray certainly has been. But Saturday was the version of Denver basketball that tickles the fancy of the globe’s favorite point-center.

The passing. The trust. The buckets from all angles. The kumbayasketball that made them the class of the Western Conference.

“I love it just because then you can see everybody is moving,” he told reporters after the game. “I think that’s hard to guard when we are passing the ball. … It’s so, I think it’s, I say, we’re like poison.

“Not poison.”

The word he was looking for was contagious. Indeed, infectious is a great way to describe the Nuggets’ performance in their 119-108 win over the Lakers in Game 3. It’s what shined as they took a stranglehold on the Western Conference Finals.

But poison might actually be the perfect word considering how they methodically, break down their opponents. They’ve got a substance to them and it just kills any notion of their inferiority. All season, the Nuggets have been overlooked, their consistent excellence deemed untrustworthy by most. But what went down in Los Angeles was an aha moment, when a basketball nation realized Denver was undoubtedly worthy.

In hindsight, it should have long been recognizable. But superstar is a helluva drug, and the NBA is a rave. It’s so easy to be inebriated by individual greatness. 

But the Nuggets, man — ditto for the Heat — they’re a refreshing reminder. That championships are won by well-constructed, connected teams. That depth and chemistry is the remedy for brilliance. That triumphant seasons are always full of sappy stories of unlikely moments and unsung stars.

Denver and Miami are steaming toward the NBA Finals because they are the best collectives. The anti-super teams. The list of superstars they’d send home en route to that matchup — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — is evidence top-heavy talent isn’t enough.

To be sure, superstars are a requirement. None have shined brighter than Jokić and Jimmy Butler. Jokić is etched among the all-time greats, no matter what happens the rest of the way. But the difference is proving to be what’s behind them, the spirit of the unit they lead, the schemes and adjustments of their coaches. Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid and Ja Morant went home early because they couldn’t overcome the flaws of their collective.

The Lakers made it this far because they learned the lesson and reshaped their team. They were seduced by the superstar drug, getting Russell Westbrook before flirting with swapping him for Kyrie Irving. But they’re in the West Finals because they instead took a more holistic approach. The results are admirable considering they renovated three months ago. Their season is on the brink of ending, though, because Denver is a better collective.

These Nuggets look like the best team in the league, in the truest sense. They have all the components. They have arguably the best player in the league, and a formidable co-star in Murray. They have complementary players who know their roles and revel in fulfilling them. They have size and versatility, experience and hunger, belief and sacrifice.

“We’re No. 1 in the West for a reason,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said in his postgame presser following 17 points and two steals in just over 34 minutes. “I believed it from the jump that we could win a championship.  That was everybody’s mindset.  We knew how we could jell together and play together.  … We’re the underdogs.  We don’t get enough credit for what we do.  Like I said, we’re No. 1 in the West for a reason. Not being talked about a lot, we take that personal.  We just use that energy, continue to prove everybody wrong.”

Arguably two of the most critical stretches of Game 3, the two that most demoralized the Lakers, were powered by the Nuggets non-stars. They were the bridge between the explosive first half of Murray and the dominant close by Jokić. It was a showcase of the excellence Denver displayed all season but most missed.

The first came with 7:24 left in the third quarter. Jokić was whistled for his fourth foul. It looked, per replay, to be a suspect call flagged from across the court. The kind of misfortune that can swell doubt, make a team feel like the evening is against them. Murray had 30 in the first half, yet after Anthony Davis split the free throws following Jokić’s fourth foul, the Lakers trailed just 68-64.

This was a danger zone for Denver. Both the Grizzlies and the Warriors came undone on this very floor under similar pressure. For all the Hollywood glitz and glamour of the environment, had grown into a scary movie for opponents. In these haunts, supporting casts trip over themselves like co-eds in horror flicks. These Nuggets were massacre proof though. The great offseason of general manager Calvin Booth, the persistent intensity of coach Michael Malone, prepared them for this. They were ready in a way we should’ve known they’d be.

In a moment of utter defiance, Bruce Brown drove all the way to the rim before dishing the ball back out to Michael Porter Jr. for a 3-pointer. This would be a second-half theme. Whenever the Lakers mounted a push, got some momentum or gained an advantage, Denver’s depth delivered.

When Austin Reaves tied the game at 71 with a 3-pointer at the 5:25 mark, the Nuggets responded with Brown getting an offensive rebound and putting it back. Caldwell-Pope followed with a steal that led to a fast-break layup for Brown. The lead was back to four.

Davis converted inside, pulling the Lakers within two, then blocked a runner by Murray. But Aaron Gordon outworked three Lakers to get the offensive rebound. He kicked it out to Jeff Green, who made the extra pass to Porter Jr. for a 3. Denver’s lead was back up to 5.

Remember, Jokić was on the bench in foul trouble. Murray, after scoring 53 points over a three-quarter stretch, drew the Steph Curry defense in the third quarter. Lakers coach Darvin Ham had pesky guard Dennis Schröder face guard Murray everywhere he went, taking away his open looks on the perimeter and prompting him to drive toward Davis. Murray went scoreless on five shots in the third quarter.

But this wasn’t the end for Denver. Quite the opposite. This was the part in the heartwarming sports movie where inspirational violin kicks in as they rise to meet adversity. Caldwell-Pope hit back-to-back tough jumpers on Lonnie Walker IV, putting the Nuggets up seven. It won’t make the headlines, but it was a most critical stretch. In a season that’s been marked by the Nuggets’ struggles when Jokić sits, the “others” poked their chest out.

LeBron James hit back-to-back 3s to erase Denver’s cushion. But they entered the fourth quarter with the lead. With their best player sitting, and their star point guard being hounded, the Nuggets stiff-armed the Lakers’ push. Denver survived and entered the fourth quarter ahead.

“I mean, I never doubted my team,” Jokić told reporters. “I know they’re capable. You see it in the third quarter. … We have some really good players that can step up in the right moment, and that’s what we did.”

It was a West Coast version of what we saw in Game 2 in the East Finals. Some of the most critical moments as Miami took two games in Boston were authored by the pieces around Butler and Bam Adebayo. It was Caleb Martin cooking the Celtics, keeping Miami attached. It was Duncan Robinson outscoring all Celtics in the fourth quarter. It was Gabe Vincent who hit the dagger jumper.

(Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game 3 for the Nuggets was as much about the supporting cast as it was about the stars. The most the Lakers allowed at home in these playoffs was 111, and that was in overtime against Memphis in the first round. The Warriors never topped 101 in this building.

But Saturday night, they couldn’t stop the Nuggets. Denver struck from so many areas. Porter Jr. had 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes. Bruce Brown had 15 points and five assists off the bench. Game 3 was the third time in 14 playoff games the Nuggets totaled 30 assists. This was the first time four players had at least five.

“I think it’s been the timely shots by their role players,” LeBron James said. “The KCPs and Michael Porter Jrs. and Bruce Browns. Even Jeff (Green) hit a big-time timely shot today when we were kind of going on a run.  I think it’s been the supporting cast that have kind of made those timely shots that’s allowed them to kind of have the edge.”

That big-time shot by Jeff Green came in the second critical stretch. The Lakers had a one-point lead after Rui Hachimura hit a pair of free throws with 7:48 left in the game. This was another moment tailor-made for Denver to break. Davis was back in the game, LeBron was rolling, Schröder was back in to pressure Murray all over. This was closing time for the Lakers, time for them to get back in this series.

The Lakers’ defense, when it sets its sights on a star, is good at taking him away. They’ve got the pieces to focus on containing a dominant player and still have enough resistance to make it a worthwhile strategy. It’s worked wonders in their mid-season revival. So, with the lead again, the Lakers enacted their anybody-but plan.

Jokić had started to take over. He grabbed the clipboard and drew up the scheme for the Nuggets. He scored seven points in two minutes as he and Murray turned to the two-man game. There was no question where Denver was going to turn now, less than eight minutes left in the game. When Jokić went to work on Hachimura in the paint, Davis came over with the double team.

It just wasn’t a problem for Denver. Jokić kicked it out to Brown, who swung it to the corner where Green stood alone, abandoned by Davis. Green buried the 3-pointer to give the Nuggets the lead back.

The Lakers’ Walker tried to answer but his 3-pointer missed, setting up a transition for the Nuggets. Porter got the ball on the left wing, lost Davis with a pump fake, and stepped in for a pull-up jumper. Instead, though, he whipped the ball to Brown in the right corner for a 3-pointer. Timeout Lakers.

The lead was back to five, but bigger was the message delivered. The Nuggets weren’t going to be rattled. Taking away their stars wasn’t enough. They were built for this, constructed for the long haul. They’ve spent a season forging a camaraderie, fortified by perceptions of disrespect and irrelevance. While the basketball world foamed at the mouth in debates about superstars, legends and legacies, the Nuggets were busy crafting a collective worthy of collecting a trophy. This was the fruit of their labor.

“Everybody realizes when we need something, we need a spark,” Murray told reporters. “Could be Joker, could be me, could be Bruce, Jeff off the bench. Whether it’s a chase-down block or a charge or something. Everybody has something they can come in and impact the game with.  And I thought tonight was another example of everybody stepping up in the right way.”

The 3-pointers by Green and Brown started a 13-0 run to put away the Lakers, and all but end their season — 11 were scored or assisted by Brown. Jokić and Murray finished the job, scoring 15 of the Nuggets final 20 points. But they were only in a position to do so because of the completeness of their unit. Yeah, they’ve got the superstars, but what’s behind them is why they’re special. In an era of super teams, the Nuggets are on the cusp of the Finals because they’ve got a team that’s super.

Related Reading

Jones: How Nuggets’ chemistry has them on cusp of NBA Finals
Amick: What Malone and Murray tell us about Nuggets patience
Buha: Lakers on brink of elimination as Nuggets pose unsolvable problems
Guillory: How are Heat doing this? Adaptability fuels historic run

(Top photo: Keith Birmingham / Getty Images)

2023-05-21 18:05:47