Thursday, June 20, 2024

Denver Nuggets show they are clear favorites to win back-to-back NBA titles

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They were down 0-2, now they’re leading. They were on the brink, now they’re thriving. A week ago, the Denver Nuggets seemed ready to abandon their quest for a second straight NBA championship, now they’re inevitable again. 

Anything can still happen in this intense, tightly contested, emotional powder keg of a Western Conference semifinal. But after a 112-97 Denver victory in Game 5 — perhaps the most important of the entire NBA season so far — the theme of this series is starting to come into focus. 

Nice try, Minnesota. 

Once the team that held all the cards in this series after winning the first two games in Denver, the Timberwolves are now just one loss in Game 6 on Thursday away from that idea becoming their scarlet letter: The very moment they had the Nuggets pinned on the mat, Minnesota got exposed. The Timberwolves, it turned out, just weren’t ready for an NBA revolution. 

Instead, the contour of this postseason is now very clear. Denver is the favorite to go back-to-back. With three-time most valuable player Nikola Jokic as aggressive and unstoppable as ever, this series seems over. These playoffs seem over.

Who else is going to mount the kind of challenge Minnesota did? Who else will be able to bother Jokic and disrupt Denver’s offense the way the Timberwolves did for the first two games, only to see the Nuggets enter a different realm of intensity and execution once they really had to find it? 

Minnesota was worthy of all the praise it got for bringing a 2-0 series lead back home. It doesn’t deserve some of the arrows that will be slung its way for blowing said lead or the inevitable nitpicking of their personnel. 

Yes, the Timberwolves’ best performance of the series — a 106-80 blowout win in Game 2 — came when center Rudy Gobert sat out due to the birth of his child. Yes, they deflated emotionally in Game 3 when they could have landed the knockout blow at home. And yes, things got clunky in Game 4 with Gobert mostly in the way offensively and Karl-Anthony Towns unable to make a jump shot, leaving Anthony Edwards with too much to do. 

But the turn in this series hasn’t really been about Minnesota much at all. In the end, the Nuggets kinda just decided to be good again. 

Though Denver was one of the best teams in the NBA all season, they weren’t all the way locked in. They messed around a little bit and got the No. 2 seed in the West instead of the home-court advantage throughout. They messed around in the first round and needed five games to take care of the Lakers instead of last year’s sweep. And when the Timberwolves hit them with remarkable energy and defensive dynamism to open this series, the Nuggets looked staggered. 

Instead, it only woke them up. 

The Timberwolves are good enough to still turn this series one more time. They can win Game 6 at home, get this thing back to Denver for a Game 7 and hope that something — an injury, shooting luck, whatever — goes in their favor. It wouldn’t be a huge shock. 

But as this series has unfolded, it starts to look like a story as old as the NBA itself: A young team with a new superstar that gets a taste of what it takes to win a championship but ultimately comes up short in its first real try. 

Denver was that team a few years ago. Maybe the Timberwolves and Edwards are next in line. 

But right now, this is Denver’s league and Jokic’s sport.

As many great playoff performances as he’s had, Game 5 looked different for Jokic. It seemed personal. It was undeniably ruthless: 40 points, 15-of-22 field goals, 13 assists and seven rebounds. 

Minnesota is a great defensive team that almost seems cooked up in a lab to match up against Denver’s personnel and specifically Jokic. At the business end of this series, though, he’s completely unbothered. When we look back on it, it will be remembered as the series Minnesota lost after being up 2-0 but it also should be remembered as one in which there wasn’t a whole lot more they could do. 

Not against that guy. Not against that team once guard Jamal Murray started to get healthy from a calf injury, and the confidence got going and the shots started to fall. 

Now with Minnesota nearly out of the way, who’s left to stop them? Compared to this series, Dallas-Oklahoma City has looked like the junior varsity. The Knicks’ roster is down to the barest of bare bones and might make the Eastern Conference finals anyway. The Celtics, who are headed for a victory over the Cavaliers, are still too flaky in fourth quarters to be trusted. 

It’s hyperbole to call this the de facto NBA finals, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we look back in a month and remember the Timberwolves series as Denver’s most challenging.

Minnesota was that much of a test, and the Nuggets nearly failed it. But now the NBA postseason doesn’t seem as mysterious or wide-open as it did just a handful of days ago. There’s only one team to beat. The Nuggets are simply the best. 

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