“Coach, I’m going to get you a great present,” he told Malone before the game. “I’m either going to get you home or get you to the Western Conference finals.”
With a 104-89 win, making NBA history in the process as the first team to ever come back twice in one postseason from a 3-1 series deficit, Malone was happy to get the latter.
“So proud. All the guys, never got down, believed in each other. Believed in themselves,” Malone said. “In light of all the noise outside this series that we had no chance. We have people guaran-tee-ing it. We found a way to beat a really good team three times. I’ve run out of things to say.”
After coming back from 3-1 down in the opening round against the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets had to overcome three consecutive double-digit deficits against the Clippers to win three straight and advance to the Western Conference finals. According to Elias, the Nuggets are the first team in postseason history with three straight double-digit comeback wins when facing elimination.
“I think this is our sixth straight elimination game; 71 days in the bubble and just to stay together, that commitment, that toughness is — you don’t see that around very often,” Malone said, not actually not running out of things to say. “That speaks to the guys in the locker room and how much they love each other. Just an amazing feeling.”
Malone’s message following Game 4 was simple: focus on winning the next game, and the next game only. It’s become part of Denver’s DNA to be pushed up against elimination, with a clear comfort level playing with their season on the line. Their past four postseason series have gone seven games (3-1 in those series) and they’re now 6-0 in elimination games this postseason.
But Malone has spent the last week reminding everyone — his team included — that this isn’t some upstart bunch. The Nuggets finished second in the West last season in wins, and were the third seed this season.
“Our goal was never to get to a Game 7,” Malone said. “Our goal when we started this whole season was to win a championship. As outrageous as that may sound to people outside of our group, we never lost sight of that. We kept our belief in that.”
As the Clippers’ stars struggled, 23-year-old guard Jamal Murray shined again in a Game 7, scoring 40 points on 15-of-26 shooting in 45 minutes. Jokic was dominant, posting a triple-double (16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists), the second Game 7 triple-double of his career, tying Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo as the only players to have done that.
“We are just not accepting that somebody’s better than us,” Jokic said.
The Nuggets embraced the chip on their shoulder, leaning into the nobody-believes-in-us mentality and relishing the opportunity to upend the assumed Battle of LA matchup so many predicted. Malone referred to his group as the “Bad News Bears” and himself as Coach Buttermaker on Monday and hasn’t been shy about enjoying the role of spoiler.
It’s a mindset his team has taken on, keeping the critics, experts and analysts at the front of their minds as they pushed back against the Jazz, and then the Clippers.
“You got Shaq, you got Charles [Barkley], I think Zach Lowe … Stephen A, all y’all better start giving this team some damn respect,” Murray said. “Because we put in the work. We shouldn’t have been down 3-1, but to come back down 3-1 against the Clippers is a big achievement so it’s fun just to change that narrative.”
Said Jokic: “Nobody wants us here. Nobody thinks we can do something. We prove ourselves and proved everybody we can do something.”
Murray and Jokic dominated the final three games of the series, particularly late in games as the Clippers wore down. For Murray, it was his third 40-point game facing elimination this postseason, becoming the first player in NBA history to score 40 or more in three elimination games in a single postseason, according to Elias.
“We’ve got a lot of energy, and we brought it and they didn’t match that,” Murray said. “They got who they got. They’ve got a talented squad. They’ve got Doc [Rivers], too. They’ve got assistant coaches who are about to be head coaches. We know what they have, we just outworked them a little bit with our young legs.”
The Nuggets move on to their first Western Conference finals appearance since 2009, where Carmelo Anthony led them to a matchup with … the Los Angeles Lakers. For now, though, they’re going to enjoy their upset of the Clippers before preparing for Game 1 against the Lakers on Friday.
“By no means are we satisfied,” Malone said. “But I think you have to celebrate the moments. That’s something I learned from my parents. This is a moment, it’s my birthday and we’re going to go party.
“In the bubble,” he clarified with a smile. “In the bubble.”
The Nuggets have endured a grueling bubble experience, arriving in pieces as multiple players dealt with positive virus tests. They’ve battled injuries, getting players healthy as they go. It’s all pretty standard attrition stuff for Denver, part of the identity Malone and company have forged the last three seasons. They’ve played 14 playoff games in 28 days, and will have to get ready for a well-rested Laker team that hasn’t played since Saturday.
Again, the Nuggets will be underdogs. And again, they’re just fine with it.
“They gotta worry about us too,” Jokic said.
NBA playoffs – Inside the evolving conversation surrounding Jimmy Butler
A year ago, Jimmy Butler was changing teams for the third time in three years. He didn’t make the All-Star Game for the first time in four years, and he had developed a reputation as an irritant or a malcontent or a difficult teammate — or all three.
These days, Joel Embiid tweets as if Butler is the one who got away. The Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves could be watching Butler’s Eastern Conference finals run with the Miami Heat and wondering what might have been.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Butler’s Heat teammates have repeatedly praised his leadership, especially in the bubble. Butler has often said he doesn’t pay attention to what is said or written about him, but those close to him know that’s not true.
Butler hears what is said, and it has motivated him throughout his rise to basketball stardom.
Here’s how Jimmy Butler has been discussed by those who have lived the journey alongside him.
From the night the Bulls drafted him No. 30 overall in 2011, Butler brought a chip on his shoulder with him. The entire course of his basketball life centered around the premise that hard work will take him wherever he wants to go. While he initially struggled to find his place in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, Butler had no problem clicking in what was already a tight Bulls locker room.
Early in his Chicago career, the conversation surrounding Butler focused on a hard-nosed role player who was a piece to a larger puzzle, not the focal point of a contender.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman, on draft night 2011: “[Butler] is a guy that’s a real fit for us. … The type of makeup and character he has, I think he’ll fit in our locker room and with the culture we’re creating.”
Bulls guard Derrick Rose, in December 2011: “He has a lot of confidence, quiet confidence, where when he’s out there, he’s always doing something good. He can defend. Plays smart, man, especially being a rookie.”
Thibodeau, in February 2012: “We’ve liked him from the start. We love his attitude and approach and the way he works every day, his demeanor. And we know he’s going to get better and better. … As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams, he’s only going to get better and better. But he’s got a very serious approach to the game.”
Thibodeau, in March 2014: “The best thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He will do it over and over and over again, and he doesn’t complain about playing the big minutes.”
Buzz Williams, Butler’s college coach at Marquette, in November 2014: “He’s not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He’s way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has. … He was never an all-conference player. He was never an honorable mention all-conference player. He wasn’t first-team. He wasn’t on a list.”
While the Bulls’ staff appreciated Butler’s tenacity, there was still doubt throughout the organization that he would develop the type of offensive game needed to be a permanent solution at shooting guard on an already loaded roster with an MVP in Rose.
Then, after years of taking a back seat, Butler exceeded even the most optimistic expectations about his ceiling — a better player than his most ardent supporters expected.
Butler turned down a four-year, more than $40 million offer before the 2014-15 season, just a few million shy of what he and his representatives were asking for, because he believed he could eventually make more. He was right. Butler signed a max contract worth over $90 million the following summer. After inking a superstar deal, questions surfaced surrounding Butler’s leadership.
Williams, in November 2014: “Jimmy has lived his life betting on himself. And so when you say, ‘We’re going to give you four years, $42 million,’ Jimmy doesn’t process it as four years, $42 million. He doesn’t look at it that way because he’s always bet on himself. And so if there’s a question of, here’s the option, take the guarantee or bet on yourself, well, he doesn’t know what the guarantee is. He’s always going to bet on himself. But that’s not specific to the Bulls, that’s not specific to the NBA; that’s specific to his heart.”
Former Bulls center Joakim Noah, in October 2017: “Jimmy went from the 15th player on the team, the last player coming off the bench, to the star player of the team in four years. When that happens, I’m sure that there was an adjustment period for him. There was an adjustment period for the organization. And there was definitely a change of culture.”
Tension that had been building between Butler and some of his teammates over the years finally boiled over when Butler and Dwyane Wade ripped some of the Bulls’ younger players after blowing a late lead to the Atlanta Hawks in January 2017. The decision to vent their frustration publicly angered both the Bulls’ front office and the locker room.
Bulls guard Rajon Rondo, in January 2017: “My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
When Butler was dealt to Minnesota in the summer of 2017, he was viewed as the missing piece to a potential contender. With former No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as support and Thibodeau coaching, Butler was introduced with high expectations at a news conference inside the Mall of America. “Big three, big whatever,” Butler said at the time. “Let’s get some big wins.”
Towns, in June 2017: “This is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties. We’re talking about a top-15 player in the league.”
Thibodeau, in June 2017: “He’s one of the best two-way players. Watching him become a three-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, All-NBA, it’s a tribute to the way he works and who he is as a person. He’s a great person, he’s a great leader and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Butler found early success with his new team, and the Timberwolves qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. But soon after the season ended, Butler made it clear to Thibodeau that he wanted out of Minnesota, in part because he wasn’t convinced that Towns and Wiggins, both of whom struggled with consistency the previous season, were going to put in the work needed to become championship-caliber players, according to sources.
The frustration that had been lingering since early in his tenure in Minnesota exploded during a heated training camp practice when Butler challenged teammates and executives. It set the stage for a deal shipping him to the Philadelphia 76ers a month into the 2018-19 season and provided a new narrative around Butler’s work ethic — one that cast him as perhaps too aggressive.
Timberwolves center Taj Gibson, just before Butler was dealt in 2018: “It was like a right hook. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know. I thought — it looked like from everything things were going good.”
Thibodeau, in November 2018: “I have known Jimmy a long time. Obviously, we felt when we had the opportunity to get him that we had to take advantage of that. It is rare when you have the opportunity to get a top-10 player. We knew there was risk involved with it.”
Towns, in March 2019: “We don’t know what was said behind [closed doors]. I don’t know what the front office told Jimmy. I don’t know what Jimmy told the front office. I just think that both parties came to a conclusion at the end of the day. If he wanted to be traded, as he wanted to, as he got, I wish it could have happened quicker. We would have had more time to get our team ready. We would have had more time to get our culture ready, our season ready.”
For the second time in 18 months, Butler was sent to a new team. As was the case in Minnesota, Butler found himself in the middle of two well-established young stars. His reputation from the Minnesota fallout lingered as he stepped into a combustible team with championship aspirations.
76ers GM Elton Brand, in November 2018: “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top-20 players. Now we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor.”
76ers owner Josh Harris, in November 2018: “This is a city that loves fierce competitors and those who will push against all obstacles to find a way to win. That’s the ethic that we’ve built our team on [and what Butler does] every night on the court.”
76ers coach Brett Brown, in January 2019: “When you come into a situation with Ben and Joel and JJ [Redick], it doesn’t always equal immediate comfort. As I’ve said to all of our guys over the years, you can’t always win on your terms.”
After reports of early issues with Brown, Butler found his rhythm and developed a strong bond with Embiid. But the Sixers endured a second-round loss to Kawhi Leonard and the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, and that set up Butler’s exit from Philadelphia later that summer.
“Hell yeah [the last year] was difficult,” Butler acknowledged during a March appearance on “The JJ Redick podcast.” “It was so different. And on any given day, me as a person, as a player, I didn’t know who the f— was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing.”
76ers center Embiid, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October 2019: “It was a big loss, because me and him, we got to the point where we’re really close, we’re still close, we talk a lot and that’s my guy. That’s my brother forever. I wish he was on the team because I feel like the relationship that I built with him could have gone a long way. Jimmy, when it was the fourth quarter, we knew the ball was going to be [in] either me or Jimmy’s hands. And I knew I could count on him too.”
Spoelstra, the Heat coach, had heard the stories about Butler’s previous stops but valued Butler’s talent and work ethic. After Butler committed to sign with Miami, the Heat worked out a sign-and-trade deal that brought the mercurial All-Star to South Beach, where he found acceptance in a like-minded organization.
Spoelstra, in February: “We believe in Jimmy and what he’s about. We’ve had a lot of guys like that, that probably if they’re not in this system, probably people think differently of them. Udonis Haslem. I just think Jimmy is the 6-7 version of Alonzo Mourning. Or the 6-7 version of Dwyane Wade. These guys boil over with competitive fire because they care.”
Heat forward Haslem, in February: “He’s just one of our type of guys. His DNA falls in line with who we are and what we represent as an organization and the kind of guys that we want to bring in.”
Heat forward Duncan Robinson, in February: “I just don’t think it’s very common that you see a star player like that be willing to defer, particularly to younger guys. We had a game where he took three shots, but we won and he did everything else. He just does whatever it takes to win.”
Heat guard Goran Dragic, in February: “We’ve built a great chemistry, we talk a lot, and I’m happy to have him on the same team. All these years he was guarding me and it was not fun. He’s a great two-way player … tremendous team player who shoots straight up, tell you if you’re not doing your job, and that’s something I really like.”
Heat forward Andre Iguodala, in February: “When he was in other places, he got knocked for saying he was disruptive towards his other teammates, but you put him around some guys that actually want to get to the grind, what did he do for them? He upped their level of play, right?”
Heat center Meyers Leonard, in September: “He is the ultimate competitor. Everybody wondered, ‘Oh, well, is he too competitive? Or is he an a–hole?’ No, he’s not. He’s a winner.”
Predicting the Eastern Conference finals
The first three games of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics have given us enough comebacks, drama, coaching adjustments and big plays to live up to expectations and then some.
So what comes next?
We asked our NBA forecast panel to assess the series and look ahead: Who’s the best player? Which coach do you have more faith in: Erik Spoelstra or Brad Stevens? Who will win the East title? And which East team has the brightest future?
Here is how our panel sees it.
Who is the best player in the East finals?
Photo finish here, but our panel gives Celtics forward Jayson Tatum the nod over Heat swingman Jimmy Butler. Both players were named to the All-NBA third team last week, with Tatum likewise edging Butler among the voters.
Voters ranked their top three.
Which coach do you trust more in this series?
Both coaches have elite reputations, and both have winning career records in the regular season and the playoffs. But for this series, our panel showed a preference for the one who has won two championships as a head coach: Erik Spoelstra, who this season has led a surprising renaissance for Miami.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in the East finals for the third time in four years and three wins from Boston’s first NBA Finals trip in a decade.
Erik Spoelstra: 83%
Brad Stevens: 17%
Which team will win Game 4?
Boston is the pick here after the Celtics seemed to figure out how to attack Miami’s zone defense in Game 3.
Then again, the Heat are 10-2 in the postseason and have yet to lose two games in a row.
Boston Celtics: 70%
Miami Heat: 30%
Which team will win the series?
With a 2-1 lead in the series, Miami holds the upper hand, and most of our panelists expect the Heat to advance to the NBA Finals, with 37% predicting them to win in six games and another 20% picking the Heat in seven.
But if the series does go to Game 7, the advantage swings back to the Celtics, according to our panel, with 37% forecasting “Celtics in 7.”
That tells you a lot about the importance of Game 4.
Which team would have the better chance to beat the Lakers or Nuggets in the NBA Finals?
The NBA Finals begin next week, and in the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers remain favored to advance, though the Denver Nuggets won Tuesday’s Game 3 to make the series more interesting.
When it comes to which team would match up best with the West champs, it’s a tight race for our panel — another sign of how closely matched the Heat and Celtics appear to be.
Boston Celtics: 53%
Miami Heat: 47%
Which Eastern Conference team has the brightest future?
Boston is led by Tatum at age 22 and Brown at age 23, and our panel sees good things ahead for the Celtics. But the Heat have youth on their side too: Adebayo is 23 and rookie Tyler Herro is just 20.
Voters ranked their top three.
After another key performance, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone dubs Jamal Murray a superstar
Murray backed Alex Caruso off the 3-point line only to spin and drill a step-back 3. On the next possession, he hit Paul Millsap for a dunk with a beautiful pass on two defenders. And then Murray sealed Game 3 with a 29-foot rainbow shot to help Denver hold on to a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Now I know every night what I’m getting from Jamal,” said Denver coach Michael Malone. “Last year we knew what we were getting from Nikola, but what kind of game would Jamal have. That’s no longer the case.
“We have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal.”
The Lakers have arguably two of the top five players in the league in Anthony Davis and LeBron James, who combined to score 57 points on Tuesday. But it was Murray who raised his level in crunch time in Game 3, orchestrating an 8-0 run that came in the final 2:17 to hand the Lakers their first loss of the Western Conference finals.
Murray nearly matched James, who had a triple-double with 30 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. The Nuggets’ guard had 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds to help Denver rebound from losing Game 2 on a crushing buzzer-beating 3 by Davis.
“We had Game 2,” Murray said of Sunday’s 105-103 loss. “We played great in Game 2. We just had a couple breakdowns that really hurt us.
“We feel like we should be up 2-1 right now, to be honest. But we’re going to move on to Game 4.”
The Nuggets have overcome a 3-1 deficit in both the first and second round of the playoffs, against Utah and the LA Clippers, respectively. But this was the first time the Nuggets have started a series down 0-2 in the last two postseasons.
“I had no doubt that we were going to show up tonight,” Malone said. “The reason I didn’t have any doubt is because we won six straight elimination games. Everybody always has us packing our bags and leaving, but we’re not ready to go. For some reason, we love this bubble.”
Murray, though, loves shooting in crunch time in the bubble. After the Lakers made a 22-6 run to cut the deficit to four, Murray answered with the 26-foot 3, the pass to Millsap and then the 29-foot dagger.
The guard now has eight clutch time 3-pointers this postseason, second most in a single postseason over the last 20 years only behind Stephen Curry‘s nine (2016), according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
“He is built for the big shots,” said Jokic, who had 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “I really, truly believe that he’s a superstar.”
The Lakers might have the best 1-2 punch in the league. But Malone feels he has a superstar combo as well, a duo looking to even this series in Game 4.
“This gives us that much more confidence going into this series,” Malone said. “Letting them know that we’re here, we’re in this for the long haul.”
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