LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The painful, humbling ending did nothing to erase the ride.
For 82 days, the Nuggets stayed confined inside the NBA bubble, living and breathing basketball each and every day. Only one family member made the trip. For the most part, it was almost exclusively the team themselves.
For nearly three months, they stuck together, authoring gripping comebacks, re-writing NBA history and changing how the Nuggets were perceived around the league.
But their storied ride came to an end Saturday night, when the Lakers ousted the Nuggets, 117-107, in Game 5, concluding Denver’s magical run. For weeks, the Nuggets were the talk of the bubble. Their resiliency and toughness, at times, left their coach searching for words.
What happened in Orlando won’t soon be forgotten. The six wins in elimination games. Jamal Murray’s scoring spree against Utah, followed by his emotional tribute to Breonna Taylor. Nikola Jokic’s sustained excellence in the face of those elimination games. When the Nuggets land in Denver on Sunday, they’ll still have heavy hearts over a series they felt was closer than the final result.
But what they lost in falling to the Lakers, the Nuggets more than gained in terms of respect.
The Nuggets rallied furiously on Saturday night, but LeBron James had no designs on stretching this series any further. His 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist triple-double slammed the door shut on Denver’s valiant comeback comeback.
Murray, laboring through an obvious leg injury, finished with 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting. Jokic battled foul trouble early, but ended with 20 points and seven rebounds.
Even until the end, he and Murray were still fighting and scheming, trying to figure out how to penetrate the Lakers’ frontcourt.
Clippers forward Marcus Morris inadvertently gave the Nuggets life during a Game 5 scrap with Paul Millsap last round. Lakers center Dwight Howard did the exact same thing when he threw his shoulder into Millsap just minutes into the third quarter. The flagrant, which came with the Nuggets down 11, lit another comeback fuse.
Jerami Grant drained two 3-pointers and had 14 points during the third-quarter rally, and the Nuggets erased a 16-point deficit in just eight minutes. With passion and energy, the Nuggets chipped away at James’ seemingly preordained Finals appearance. After a giant Davis 3-pointer, the Lakers held a tenuous 87-84 lead going into the fourth.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was able to offer perspective on how much of a grind their daily routine had actually been.
“I feel like Bill Murray, I wake up and it’s Groundhog Day,” he joked. “It’s the same thing over and over and over again and you can’t escape it. … We’re a group that actually likes being with each other. If you don’t have a group that’s connected and likes to play, not just with each other, but for each other, I think your days in the bubble will be short-lived and I think that speaks to the chemistry that we have.”
Heading into a seventh elimination game so far this postseason, Malone said his team had the exact same mindset they’d had over their prior two historic comebacks.
“Play your game, have fun, embrace the moment,” Malone said. “Same message tonight. This is the third time we’re in this (3-1) situation. Obviously now we’re in the Western Conference Finals against a team that most experts have winning the whole thing. So there really is no pressure on us, just go out there, have fun, compete.
“You look at the series,” he continued. “Aside from Game 1, Games 2, 3 and 4, it’s a tie game. It’s dead even. So this series is a lot closer than the 3-1 deficit would appear to be.”
Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Nuggets over a frustrating first half. Jokic’s foul trouble ruined their offensive flow and forced Malone to lean far more on Mason Plumlee than he ever intended. Jokic scored nine points in just eight first-half minutes.
He watched, almost helplessly, next to Nuggets reserve Noah Vonleh from behind the team’s barricade as Denver fell behind 61-51 going into the break.
At the same time, the Lakers pounded the ball inside and ran at every opportunity. James led all scorers with 16 points on a torrent of ruthless drives to the basket. Just as it did in Game 4, the Lakers’ size forced all kinds of headaches and matchup nightmares for the Nuggets. In one telling stat, the Lakers poured in 38 points in the paint compared to just 28 for the Nuggets.
Denver’s biggest disadvantage against the towering Lakers was always their size.
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