NBA at 75: When the Denver Nuggets shocked the world

NBA at 75: When the Denver Nuggets shocked the world

Fandom, like religion, is usually inherited. My dad grew up a Nuyorican in Spanish Harlem in the 1960s. Cross the wrong block into the wrong neighborhood and things could go very wrong. His sports boundaries, by comparison, could be fuzzier. He’s followed the Mets their entire existence but roots for the Yankees in the playoffs. We grew up watching the Jets and Giants. It was with the Manhattan teams that allegiance was inviolable — the Rangers and the Knicks.

I was 15 in the spring of 1994, when my fandom hit some high holy holidays, as both the Knicks and Rangers entered the playoffs favored to win it all. The Blueshirts were infamous for not winning a Stanley Cup since 1940, while the Knicks hadn’t even reached the Finals since last winning a title in 1973.

In 1992 the Rangers were the NHL’s top team in the regular season but fell in the second round to the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and their league-best one-two of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr; a year later, the Knicks were the top seed in the East but fell in the conference finals to the defending champion Chicago Bulls and their league-best one-two of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

In 1994 Lemieux missed most of the season dealing with back surgery and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A few months after Jordan’s father was murdered, he quit the NBA.

With their recent failings and the burden of playing the heavy hanging over both, that spring was a stressful one in our home. I learned an important life lesson observing my father that postseason. When one of our teams was playing poorly, he’d switch to another sport for a while. If the Knicks and Rangers were both playing, we’d switch to the other’s game; if they weren’t, we’d put on the Mets.

The Knicks and Rangers played 48 playoff games that spring, including five Game 7s. There was a lot of switching, which I initially found sacrilegious but came to see as the wisdom of ages: when you check back your stress will be lower — either your team is still losing, in which case you spared yourself sitting through that disappointment, or they’ve come back, in which case you’re back for the good stuff. That’s how the 1994 Denver Nuggets became unforgettable to me.

The 1994 Denver Nuggets weren’t just happy to be there

The 1994 Nuggets seemed the classic “just happy to be here” playoff team, having missed the postseason the prior five seasons. Denver’s years wandering the desert were more fruitful than most: over four consecutive drafts they netted Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith and Rodney Rogers. That quintet, along with Reggie Williams, Brian Williams (later known as Bison Dele) and Robert Pack, became the team’s core; Williams, who turned 30 late in the regular season, was the old man of the group. Five Nuggets averaged double-figures in scoring in leading the franchise back to a winning record and the playoffs.

The quickest way to improve in almost any competition is to improve one’s defense. The 1994 Nuggets were a defensive menace. Only Pat Riley’s infamous black-and-blue Knicks held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage. Denver was top-ranked defending the 3-ball, but that didn’t mean then what it does now; neither the Nuggets nor their opponents averaged even three 3s a game. These were the low-post days, when defense was blood for blood and by the gallon, the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days.

Denver’s defense began and ended with Mount Mutombo, who’d end his career in Springfield, his four Defensive Player of the Year awards tied for the most ever. The year before drafting Mutombo, the Nuggets were 27th in defensive rating; by 1994, his third year, they were fifth. This clip is from a few years later, but it’s Michael Jordan, so it’s still cool.

Denver earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Waiting for them was the team with the league’s best record – the 63-win Seattle Supersonics. Having lost in Game 7 of the Western finals the year before and with Jordan retired, the Sonics entered the playoffs as the favorites … which meant dealing with the pressure that comes with being the heavy. In Game 5 of the best-of-five first round a year earlier against Utah, Seattle trailed by nine at the half, having scored just 30 points. They came back to win and nearly reach the Finals; in 1994 they wanted to cruise through the first round and be fresher for the later, tougher rounds.

Early on the cruise looked ready to depart. The Supersonics won Game 1 by 24, then coasted to a 10-point triumph in Game 2. The series moved to Denver, where the Nuggets, despite being 28-13 at home that season, decided they needed more of a lift to get up off the mat. History says John Elway didn’t win a playoff game from 1992-96. History lies – he didn’t win one with the Broncos, but Elway did help another Denver team taste postseason success.

The momentum change was immediate as the Nuggets flipped the series on its head, winning Game 3. After surrendering 50 and 42 free throw attempts to the Sonics over the first two games – the Nuggets took 41 combined. Rebounding also took a 180: the Sonics went from 52 rebounds in both of their home games (33 offensive) to 25 and eight in game 3; the Nuggets hauled down 43 and 11.

After shooting just 40 percent in the Seattle games, Denver was a scorching 60 percent in Game 3. Game 4 was the series’ first close game, but the Nuggets won in overtime thanks to a Pack 3-pointer that tied things late in the fourth and six points each from Ellis and Stith in overtime. Pack’s basket, while enormous in magnitude, was not the one most people remember him for from this series.

So it was on to a winner-take-all Game 5 that no one expected and that few people thought Denver could win. The Supersonics owned the league’s best home record and entered the series finale having won 14 straight at Key Arena. The Nuggets? They had already stamped their season a success by pushing the series to the limit. There was still no expectation they could pull off the upset. Even NBC, broadcasting the game, used Denver’s old rainbow skyline on the door to their media room at the arena.

A day earlier, the Knicks had won their opening-round series against the New Jersey Nets 3-1. They were set to meet the Chicago Bulls for the fourth consecutive playoffs and fifth in six years. Jordan’s absence was both a source of relief and stress. The Bulls weren’t “the Bulls” without the best player in the world. The Knicks were the clear favorites. That was a blessing and a curse.

As painful as it’d been to always lose to Jordan, losing to the Bulls without him would be a catastrophe – especially for me, a 15-year-lold in a school where Bulls fans still outnumbered Knicks fans by a lot. My fear was reasonable: despite no MJ, Chicago, led by an MVP-caliber campaign from Scottie Pippen, won 55 games and swept Cleveland in the first round. I didn’t want to worry about them until I had to. So Sunday afternoon I sat down to chase my anxieties with a little Nuggets/Sonics.

As Game 5 unfolded, one of the series’ subplots again took shape. Abdul-Rauf, one of the league’s most explosive shooters and Denver’s leading scorer in the regular season, couldn’t get on track against Seattle, making just 31 percent of his shots and 27 percent from deep. Early in the third quarter, he’d missed seven of his 10 looks. So, with the Nuggets down by nine, coach Dan Issel turned to Pack.

“Whenever you put Robert Pack on the floor, something exciting always happens,” Issel said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but today it was terrific.”

Pack rewarded Issel’s faith by scoring 23, 19 in the second half and overtime. Heroes abounded for the upstart Nugs: after not playing more than 19 minutes in an of the first four games, the 6-foot-11 Brian Williams saw 34 in Game 5, corralling 19 rebounds and helping Mutombo establish an inside presence Seattle couldn’t overcome. Denver won the battle of the boards 58-36. Ellis missed almost all of the fourth quarter, checked in late and hit two jumpers to help force overtime. In addition to dominating the glass, Mutombo blocked eight shots, including a Kemp attempt with 26 seconds left that would have tied the game.

Seattle was so thunderstruck, coach George Karl was reduced to mixing metaphors explaining how a No. 1 seed lost to an No. 8 seed for the first time in NBA history. “It doesn’t take a brain scientist to know [rebounding] was the key to the game,” he said.

I was in a much better place, emotionally. A major threat to New York’s title hopes was eliminated, I got to enjoy the vicarious thrill of an upset with my team was safe and sound waiting for Round 2, and I witnessed history being made in the process. I figured Denver had given me the memory of a lifetime. I had no idea what would come next.

The Knicks went up 2-0 on the Bulls and very nearly led 3-0, before Pippen sat out the final seconds of Game 3 sulking after Phil Jackson drew up the last shot for Toni Kukoč. Kukoč made it and from then on the Knicks were in a dogfight. With my stress levels rising, I needed an outlet. Why not turn to the fix that fixed me before? Denver was already a good story. Obviously they’d already maxed out on the miraculous, but why not appreciate the fall of a noble squadron?

The Nuggets were now facing the Utah Jazz, a top-10 outfit on both sides of the ball. Similar to Seattle missing the 1993 Finals by one game, the Jazz were two wins short in 1992, then fell in the opening round best-of-five a year later after blowing a 2-1 lead vs. the Sonics. They rebounded in the 1994 postseason, beating San Antonio 3-1 to advance and meet Denver. Utah had reason to feel confident, having homecourt advantage and having gone 4-1 against the Nuggets during the season. One of those losses was a remarkable game where the Nuggets trailed by eight with 30 seconds left, Rodney Rogers hit a 3-pointer, Pack stole the inbounds, Rogers hit another 3-pointer, Pack stole another inbounds, and Rogers hit another 3-pointer to give Denver the lead. The Jazz kept their wits about them and raced downcourt, finding Jeff Malone for the winning jumper.

Denver lost the first two games in Utah; unlike the Seattle series, they lost Game 3 at home, too. Again things looked bleak. Again they responded, this time even more dramatically than they had against the Sonics. The Nuggets won Game 4 by one point. Would lightning strike twice??

It wouldn’t. The Jazz led Game 7 throughout, en route to a 91-81 win. It’d be another decade before the 2004 Red Sox flipped history and the odds on their heads by coming back from 3-0 down against the Yankees in the ALCS. The closest comp I can find to the 1994 Nuggets were the 1975 New York Islanders, who won their first-round series after falling behind 3-0, then fell behind 3-0 in the next round before rallying to force and ultimately lose a Game 7. Years later I learned about the 1951 Knicks, who were down 3-0 in the Finals to the Rochester Royals before winning three straight before dropping Game 7.

With the Nuggets eliminated, I was left with the Knicks and Rangers. They’d both advance to their respective finals, where each series went the distance. Emotions run so high at that point, especially when you’re a kid; there’s euphoria and devastation and nothing in-between. In some ways the most successful sports season of my life was never more fun than when I could leave it behind and dare to dream with a team that probability had on the ropes six different times before they finally went down. The 1994 Denver Nuggets made the reasonless routine. 28 years later, I’ve yet to learn a better way to live.

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