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“Coach, I’m going to get you a great present,” he told Malone before the game. “I’m either going to get you home or get you to the Western Conference finals.”
With a 104-89 win, making NBA history in the process as the first team to come back twice in one postseason from a 3-1 series deficit, Malone was happy to get the latter.
“So proud. All the guys, never got down, believed in each other. Believed in themselves,” Malone said. “In light of all the noise outside this series that we had no chance. We have people guaranteeing it. We found a way to beat a really good team three times. I’ve run out of things to say.”
After coming back from 3-1 down in the opening round against the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets had to overcome three consecutive double-digit deficits against the Clippers to win three straight games and advance to the Western Conference finals. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the Nuggets are the first team in postseason history with three straight double-digit comeback wins when facing elimination.
“I think this is our sixth straight elimination game. Seventy-one days in the bubble and just to stay together, that commitment, that toughness is — you don’t see that around very often,” Malone said, not actually running out of things to say. “That speaks to the guys in the locker room and how much they love each other. Just an amazing feeling.”
Malone’s message following Game 4 was simple: focus on winning the next game, and the next game only. It has become part of Denver’s DNA to be pushed up against elimination, with a clear comfort level playing with their season on the line. The Nuggets’ past four postseason series have gone seven games (3-1 in those series), and they’re now 6-0 in elimination games this postseason.
But Malone has spent the past week reminding everyone — his team included — that this isn’t some upstart bunch. The Nuggets finished second in the West last season in wins and were the third seed this season.
“Our goal was never to get to a Game 7,” Malone said. “Our goal when we started this whole season was to win a championship. As outrageous as that may sound to people outside of our group, we never lost sight of that. We kept our belief in that.”
As the Clippers’ stars struggled, 23-year-old guard Jamal Murray shined again in a Game 7, scoring 40 points on 15-of-26 shooting in 45 minutes. Jokic was dominant, posting a triple-double (16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists), the second Game 7 triple-double of his career, tying Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo as the only players to do it.
“We are just not accepting that somebody’s better than us,” Jokic said.
The Nuggets embraced the chip on their shoulder, leaning into the nobody-believes-in-us mentality and relishing the opportunity to upend the assumed Battle of L.A. matchup between the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers that so many predicted. Malone referred to his group as the “Bad News Bears” and himself as Coach Buttermaker on Monday and hasn’t been shy about enjoying the role of spoiler.
It’s a mindset his team has taken on, keeping the critics, experts and analysts at the front of their minds as they pushed back against the Jazz, and then the Clippers.
“You got [Shaquille O’Neal], you got Charles [Barkley], I think Zach Lowe … Stephen A. [Smith], all y’all better start giving this team some damn respect,” Murray said. “Because we put in the work. We shouldn’t have been down 3-1, but to come back down 3-1 against the Clippers is a big achievement, so it’s fun just to change that narrative.”
Said Jokic: “Nobody wants us here. Nobody thinks we can do something. We prove ourselves and proved everybody we can do something.”
Murray and Jokic dominated the final three games of the series, particularly late in games as the Clippers wore down. For Murray, it was his third 40-point game when facing elimination this postseason, becoming the first player in NBA history to score 40 or more in three elimination games in a single postseason, according to research by Elias Sports Bureau.
“We’ve got a lot of energy, and we brought it and they didn’t match that,” Murray said. “They got who they got. They’ve got a talented squad. They’ve got Doc [Rivers], too. They’ve got assistant coaches who are about to be head coaches. We know what they have, we just outworked them a little bit with our young legs.”
The Nuggets move on to their first Western Conference finals appearance since 2009, when Carmelo Anthony led them into a matchup with … the Lakers. For now, though, they’re going to enjoy their upset of the Clippers before preparing for Game 1 against the Lakers on Friday.
“By no means are we satisfied,” Malone said. “But I think you have to celebrate the moments. That’s something I learned from my parents. This is a moment, it’s my birthday, and we’re going to go party.
“In the bubble,” he clarified with a smile. “In the bubble.”
The Nuggets have endured a grueling bubble experience, arriving in pieces as multiple players dealt with positive coronavirus tests. They’ve battled injuries, getting players healthy as they go. It’s all pretty standard attrition stuff for Denver, part of the identity Malone & Co. have forged the past three seasons. They’ve played 14 playoff games in 28 days, and will have to get ready for a well-rested Lakers team that hasn’t played since Saturday.
Again, the Nuggets will be underdogs. And again, they’re just fine with it.
“They gotta worry about us, too,” Jokic said.