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The Nuggets are in their first NBA finals. The Celtics could be their opponent, but face formidable odds
A 3-2 deficit in best-of-seven-series doesn't look that bad, unless it started as a 3-0 deficit
The Denver Nuggets faced the Los Angeles Lakers in this season’s National Basketball Association Western Conference Finals and trounced LeBron, Davis et al. in four straight games. Actually, Denver only outscored L.A. by a total of 24 points, so “trounced” is superficially defensible at best.
The Nuggets and a number of other extant franchises joined the NBA in the 1976-77 season, after the American Basketball Association and its funky red, white, and blue balls folded. (The ABA brought basketball the three-point line, so it deserves an occasional shout-out despite its long-ago formal entombment.)
For the first forty-six seasons Denver was in the NBA, it never reached the league finals and, until this season, had advanced as far as the Western Conference Finals only four times. The Nuggets are now awaiting the result of the matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, which Miami leads 3-2. Game 6 starts tonight at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, i.e., soon.
Overcoming a 3-2 deficit in a best-of-seven series is not impossible or especially unlikely. But the Celtics managed to lose the first three games in the series, including the first two at home, setting themselves up for a challenge no team in history has ever beaten back: In the 150 NBA playoff series that have started with one team up 3-0, that team has won the series all 150 times.
In fact, only three teams down 3-0 in an NBA playoff series have ever even forced a game 7, which the Celtics can do tonight. While all three of those teams have obviously lost game 7, all three were also inferior to their opponents during the regular season. The Celtics were clearly better than Miami during the 2022-23 regular season, posting a 57-25 win-loss record to the Heat’s 44-38.
Were this forty years ago, I’d be on edge awaiting tonight’s game and drooling over the possibility of the Celtics—whose home is a little over an hour from my childhood home(s)—being a part of the making of Denver pro-sports history. Although I’ll be drooling again before long for no good reason at all, I no longer “root” for pro sports franchises with any avidity.
But there was a time I was familiar with the best players throughout the league, not just those in green-and-white uniforms. And despite the Nuggets’ bland overall history, they’ve had some great players, including one breathtaking ones. My favorite among them was David Thompson.
Thompson, a product of North Carolina State University, reportedly had a 50-inch vertical leap. That means he could spring over four feet off the ground from a standing position. “Reportedly” is basically noise here, since you can find video footage of Thompson, only 6’ 4”, reaching to the top of a 13-foot high backboard.
Thompson was breathtaking when he was in his prime, pockmarked by a cocaine addiction he eventually subdued and a knee injury that curtailed his career. On the final day of the 1977-1987 regular season, Thompson, very slightly behind George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the league scoring title, scored 73 points against the Detroit Pistons to edge into the lead. Thompson’s stat line: 28 for 38 from the field, 17 for 20 from the line, and 7 rebounds in 43 minutes.
But Gervin scored 63 himself later that day, edging “Skywalker” by about one-fourteenth of a point per game for the scoring title (27.22-21.15). “The Iceman” was himself a treat to watch, remaining to this day among the most effortless pure scorers in hoops history.
The game has changed a great deal. Had the NBA had a three-point line in 1978 for Thompson’s 73-point game, during which he was gunning from all over the court, he might have scored 85 points. But although he often played above the rim, and would occasionally embarrass a far larger player by exploding out of nowhere to block a shot, Thompson was a pure scorer. Denver’s signature player today, Nikola Jokić, is a huge white freak who can play any position, including starting pitcher and designated hitter. Jokić has already racked up eight triple-doubles just in this year’s playoffs.
But there I go, getting all sappy and choked up over the present. Thompson is doing the same, as an article in today’s Denver Gazette reveals.
“It’s awesome,’’ Thompson, who played for the Nuggets from 1975-82 and is also in the Hall of Fame. “I’ve been thinking about all the fans who supported the team throughout the years. We had other teams that made it to the conference finals (in 1978, 1985 and 2009) but couldn’t get over the hump. I’m so proud of this team to be able to finally do it and hopefully they finish it out, unlike what we did in 1976 [in the ABA].”
I think the Celtics will reach the Finals and then sweep Denver in four games. Not really, but if this happens, it would create an eerie parallel between this NBA season and the 2007 Major League Baseball campaign, which saw the Colorado Rockies sweep their National League Championship foes 4-0 to reach their first World Series, only to lose that series 4-0 to the Boston Red Sox (and not return to “the Fall Classic” since).
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals takes place in Miami and will be broadcast on TNT (and probably elsewhere illegally).