By Brad Botkin
(CBS SPORTS) - Five times in these playoffs the Denver Nuggets have trailed by double digits in an elimination game. All five games they came back to win. Viewed through the "one game at a time" prism, none of these comebacks were necessarily hard to believe. Denver is talent rich and overflowing with confidence. But in totality, you would expect the law of averages to eventually win out.
You can't go down 3-1 in consecutive series and come back to win them both, can you?
That's literally never happened in the 74-year history of the NBA.
On Tuesday night, the Nuggets reversed yet another double-digit deficit en route to flat out blasting the Los Angeles Clippers to the tune of a 104-89 Game 7 victory. It's tempting to call the result stunning. But was it? These Nuggets have been in four Game 7s in the past two postseasons, and they've now won three of them. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are superstars. Yes, superstars. The scoring consistency perhaps isn't there for Murray yet, but you'd be hard pressed to find more than three point guards you'd rather have in a one-game scenario, certainly when your back is against the wall.
And Jokic's passing? Watching him patiently wait for cutters to come open, his anticipation -- it's breathtaking. And he's an elite scorer with a beautiful post and mid-range game and 3-point range on top of it. That demands double teams, which feed his passing. Great teams have bankable attributes, elements on which you can depend on in tight games and moments, and right now there are few attributes in the league you'd rather be depending on than Jokic passing and Murray scoring.
We haven't even gotten to Denver's defense yet. The Nuggets came into the playoffs bleeding points. In their eight seeding games in Orlando, they surrendered 121.7 points per 100 possessions, dead last among all 22 teams in the bubble. Over their past 10 games since going down 3-1 to Utah in the first round, the Nuggets rank sixth in playoff defensive rating at 107.1 points allowed per 100. They just held Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, the team earmarked for a conference finals showdown with the Lakers all season long, to 89 points in a Game 7. The Clips didn't make a field goal for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.
There's no way around it: The Clippers are going to get skewered for this loss. They were up 3-1. They had big leads in all three closeout games. They deserve the criticism, to be sure. Leonard, who is widely discussed alongside LeBron Jamesas the best players in the world, went 6 for 22 on Tuesday. He scored 14 points, zero of which came in the fourth quarter. If LeBron did that in a Game 7, the Internet would break.
George was even worse: 4-of-16 shooting, including 2 of 11 from three, for 10 whole points. Like Kawhi, George also posted a bagel in the fourth quarter. The self-proclaimed 'Playoff P' better rethink his posturing strategies. If there's a level below zero, that's the amount of confidence I had in one of his shots going in down the stretch of Game 7, and he looked even less confident than I felt on my couch when he was actually shooting it. The word choke gets thrown around too easily in sports. It's not a total exaggeration in this case, but I still think Denver deserves the bulk of the credit more than the Clippers should get the blame.
The Nuggets stole the Clips' soul, collectively and individually. They won that game, and that series, because they were a better team. Murray was fantastic when it mattered most, and again, this should not be a surprise. He went for 42 and 50 points vs. the Jazz with Denver facing elimination, and he went for 40 here in Game 7. Jokic, arguably, was even better despite only scoring 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, including 0 for 4 from three. Dude posted 22 rebounds and 13 assists. He was a team-high plus-22 and became the first player in history to record a Game 7 triple-double before the third quarter had ended.
I'd be remiss if I didn't shout out Gary Harris, who is a BIG part of Denver's aforementioned defensive turnaround. He is such a big-time perimeter defender, and Denver's rotational and switching energy has picked up considerably since his return. And he's even hitting a few shots after he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn all year. He was 6 for 11 from the field in Game 7, and his plus-21 over 37 minutes trailed only Jokic. Paul Millsapwas way better than his six points on six shots would indicate. Jerami Grant made some really big shots.
Listen, Denver is no fluke. They're top-end talent rich and super deep. They are suddenly playing defense. They play hard, together and pretty smart. They have not one, but two go-to offensive wells. They have X-factors like Michael Porter Jr. and Harris who can swing a game on any given night.
People are penciling the Lakers in for the NBA Finals with this result, acting like Denver's upset was a blessing. Be careful what you wish for. The Denver Nuggets are no joke. To this point, we've always talked about them in a future sense, a team on the rise but not quite there yet, the proverbial one player away. Well, forget about that. They might not beat the Lakers, but they've arrived. Their future is now. And right now, it couldn't look any brighter.
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