By design, the NBA isn’t particularly friendly to underdogs. Professional basketball requires a very specific body type, which only a handful of adult men worldwide have. As a result, the gap in skill level between the most talented and least talented professional basketball players is considerably wider than that of soccer, hockey or baseball. Basketball also allows more opportunities to score than any other major sport. NBA teams play 82 games over the course of the regular season, followed by a playoff tournament of four best-of-seven games. All of this adds up to a league in which skill prevails over luck. It’s the reason the NBA is a league of dynasties and in which final outcomes feel inevitable. It’s also the reason that comebacks in the NBA taste sweeter than in any other league.
In a league where precious few games and even fewer series are won on accident, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit stands alone as the most heroic and unlikely comeback a team can make. Before this season, only 11 teams had completed this dauntless task, the most recent being LeBron James and the Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Finals. Recently, my hometown Denver Nuggets became the only team in NBA history to do so twice in the same playoffs. Through two rounds, the experience for Nuggets fans like me has been an odyssey of despair, adrenaline and euphoria that has reminded us all of why we love sports.
The Denver Nuggets, who I’ll refer to as “we” from now on, are today’s most lovable off-the-beaten-path NBA team. Our two most notable players are Jamal Murray, a tough and feisty Canadian guard who until this season was known as a streaky B-tier star, and Nikola Jokić, a vertically challenged, goofy-looking seven-foot Serbian who makes up for his lack of athleticism with brilliant scoring and superlative passing. The two stars are rounded out by a cast of mostly young specialists whose collective buy-in, combined with the basketball minds Jokić and Head Coach Michael Malone, makes the whole team greater than the sum of its parts. We mounted these comebacks against much more prototypical NBA teams in the Utah Jazz and L.A. Clippers, each led by young and athletic American stars.
It’s hard to overstate just how impossible these comebacks looked before they happened. After losing three straight games to the Jazz, we looked like outmatched frauds, losing badly to a team we were projected to beat. I was incensed, yelling obscenities at the players and referees as if they would change their behavior if I yelled loud enough. But on the cusp of defeat, Murray hypnotized himself and in his otherworldly state, produced a flurry of epic scoring performances unlike anything Nuggets fans have seen before. All I could do was laugh in awe of the late-blooming stone-cold assassin that had just saved our season. All culminated in a nail-biting Game Seven which came down to one final shot that the Jazz just barely missed — the only fitting way to end such a thrilling series.
The Clippers series was less thrilling — no games were particularly close. The Clippers, championship favorites in the eyes of many, dominated three of the first four games before the momentum shifted almost instantaneously towards us. The next three games were the sweetest kind of victories — the kind that of medium margin-victories against complacent superstars, two of them second half comebacks, that allow the underdog to gloat at everyone who forgot how dangerous they were. A chance to say, as Damian Lillard most recently declared, “Put some respect on my fucking name!”
At the time I’m writing this, things don’t look good for the Nuggets. We’re down 2-0 against a LeBron-led Lakers team that looks poised to go to the finals. No matter what happens, I’m proud of this team. We put together a run that no other team has ever put together, a run powered by the qualities all athletes strive for — grit, teamwork, resolve and an audacious desire to keep fighting.