Waiting will not be the hardest part, it only will feel like it is for the Denver Nuggets, who advanced to the first NBA Finals in franchise history on Monday.
Now comes a nine-day pause before the June 1 start of their title pursuit against either the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat, who have a commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Well, I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to go,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said in jest when asked about the upcoming time off. “I might go to Cabo for a few days, have a margarita on the beach. Sounds good, right? Yeah, we’ll take (Tuesday) to get some rest.”
The Nuggets earned a series sweep over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals and are 12-3 over the first three rounds of the playoffs. Getting past the Lakers was not as easy as it seemed with each game tightly contested, including Monday’s clincher.
The Nuggets trailed by 15 points at halftime as they watched determined Lakers star LeBron James score 21 points in the first quarter and 31 in the opening half. It was James’ playoff career high for any half.
Nuggets star Nikola Jokic was more measured in his approach, finishing with his third triple-double of the series, his fourth in the last five playoff games and eighth of this season’s playoffs alone. Eight is an NBA record, passing the seven playoff triple-doubles Wilt Chamberlain had for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967.
“I think I’m really happy for the guys and for the organization and just how we fought through,” said Jokic, who scored 30 points with 14 rebounds and 13 assists in the clincher. “I remember the days when nobody was in our (building). You could hear the ball bounce on the floor and there was no fans. And (now) we have a sellout every other night.
“Just for the organization, just for the people, just for coach (Malone), for all the players that everybody doubted. I think I’m just happy, and it means a lot for me for the collective that we have.”
Jamal Murray had 25 points for the Nuggets, while Aaron Gordon had 22. The downtime will be a bonus for Murray, who is making his return after missing last season because of an ACL injury.
“I had some ups and downs during the season, some sore days where I couldn’t play, and those sucked,” Murray said. “Played my first back-to-back in January or something like that. It’s just been trending (forward). Every month I feel my knee get better and more solid and more consistent in the way it’s going to feel. Just to be here and be playing this many minutes at this time has been — we’ve prepared for this.”
If the Heat defeat the Celtics on Tuesday, it would be the first time in NBA history both conference finals ended in sweeps, but it will also create extended downtime for both squads.
At issue for the Nuggets is continuing the momentum that got them this far. If they face the Heat, the series will open at Denver; if they play the Celtics, the series will start on the road.
“To get the first Western Conference championship in franchise history, it means a lot,” Malone said. “But I speak for 17 players in that locker room and the entire organization: We are not satisfied. We’re going to enjoy it for a moment … but we have a lot of work to do.”