Jamal Murray tried to warn you. He told everyone who was willing to listen. He broadcasted it to the entire world.
“We’re ready for this!” Murray yelled to the Ball Arena crowd after his dagger 3 sealed the Nuggets’ Game 1 win over the Suns three weeks ago.
Everyone thought the Nuggets weren’t ready for this spotlight, these expectations, and these types of playoff-tested, star-studded, championship-contending playoff opponents. Some even picked Denver to lose in the first round to Minnesota. The Nuggets entered the second round vs. the Suns as underdogs. After their Game 1 win over the Lakers, the national narrative circled back to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and how Rui Hachimura’s six fourth-quarter possessions of defense against Nikola Jokic meant Denver was in trouble.
The Nuggets took note, then came out and won a hard-fought Game 2.
“I think a lot of our guys, to be honest, they may not admit this or not. You win Game 1, and all everybody talked about was the Lakers,” Michael Malone said after the Nuggets’ 108-103 win Thursday night. “Let’s be honest, the national narrative was ‘Hey, the Lakers are fine. They’re down 1-0, but they figured something out.'”
The Nuggets are walking, talking, and playing with a type of confidence that I’ve never seen from them before. They’re cocky. They’re bold. They’re fearless. After Game 1, Bruce Brown called out D’Angelo Russell’s defense after the Nuggets played him off the floor in the fourth quarter. Michael Porter Jr. casually dismissed the successful adjustment that the Lakers made. Prior to Game 2, Malone lambasted the Hachimura storyline.
“Even when we win,” Murray said. “They talk about the other team.”
Who are these guys?
Here’s my read: This is a group that’s been waiting for this moment. The Nuggets have heard everything that’s been said about them over the last three seasons — from the pundits who discredited Jokic’s back-to-back MVPs and claimed he’d get exposed on defense in the playoffs, to the lack of respect for the Nuggets as true contenders this season — and now they’re acting on it.
Murray has been ticked off all year about the constant comparisons to “Bubble Murray” and the questions about whether or not he’s fully “back.” Denver’s locker room has felt disrespected by the lack of attention they’ve received as the No. 1 seed in the West, a spot they’ve held since December.
The Nuggets have said that they’ll show the world who they really are in the playoffs, Now, it’s all coming out. And as Murray proclaimed, they’re ready for this.
“We play like the No. 1 seed and we believe we’re the No. 1 seed,” said Murray. “And we back it up.”
The Nuggets’ Game 2 win was a championship-level victory from a group that looks more and more like a team of destiny. Nothing went right for Denver in the first half of Game 2. The Nuggets were in foul trouble, Denver couldn’t hit from 3, and no one outside of Jokic, who recorded his fourth-straight triple-double in Game 2 and seventh of the playoffs, could find an offensive rhythm. Then, Murray hit a pull-up jumper with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter with the Nuggets trailing 81-79 and everything changed.
Murray scored 23 of his 37 points in the fourth. He drained eight of his final nine shots of Game 2. He erupted. His fourth-quarter flurry led to what I think is the loudest I’ve ever heard Ball Arena. It was Murray’s fourth career 20+ point fourth quarter in the playoffs, the most of any player over the last 25 years.
“To have a closer like Jamal is definitely something that we cherish,” Malone said.
This is the team that Malone, Jokic, and Murray have been waiting three years for. It’s the team that this organization and city have envisioned all along. This is what the Nuggets were meant to be. On Thursday, Denver moved two wins away from its first Finals appearance in franchise history and six wins away from its first NBA championship. Injuries stalled the Nuggets’ timeline, but now Denver is back on track.
“It delayed our destiny and our journey,” said Malone.
Following the Nuggets’ 97-87 Game 2 win vs. the Suns — a win that felt eerily similar to Thursday’s Game 2 triumph over the Lakers — I spoke with a member of the Nuggets’ front office who has been with this team for the majority of the Jokic era.
“After Game 1, I thought we could definitely win the series,” he told DNVR. “After Game 2, I thought we could definitely win the championship.”
This Game 2 win over the Lakers gave off that same feeling.
The Nuggets still have several more steps to climb. The job is not close to complete. Game 3 Saturday in Los Angeles is going to be the most difficult game the Nuggets have played all postseason and Denver is going to have to play its best game of the playoffs to win.
But this team believes, and they think you’re a fool if you don’t. So either get on board or get left behind.
“Same old, same old. It just fuels us a little more,” Murray said regarding the narrative that emerged after Game 1. “And it will be sweeter when we win the ‘Chip.”
If this team doesn’t get you so jacked up as a Nuggets fan, are you even a fan? Great read.