DENVER — With bags on his back, Nikola Jokic playfully swerved his way through the crowd of family and friends gathered at the airport terminal.
The Denver Nuggets finally returned home after their longer-than-many-anticipated stay inside the NBA bubble.
Arriving with them, a new reputation — the comeback crew.
The Nuggets overcame a pair of 3-1 series deficits in advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009. Their extended stay at Disney in Florida ended when LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers sent them packing after Game 5.
Still, they accomplished something historical in becoming only the third team in the U.S. major pro sports to rally from a pair of 3-1 deficits in the same playoffs. They joined the 1985 Kansas City Royals and 2003 Minnesota Wild.
“People around this country, around the world, who were watching the playoffs, this group of guys, you would be hard-pressed to find a better story coming out of this bubble,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “A bunch of young kids faced elimination, looked it in the face and just kept on surviving and advancing. … We have something special brewing.”
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The nucleus features an assortment of drafted and developed players. There’s Murray, the Kentucky product taken with the seventh pick in the 2016 draft who emerged as one of the biggest stars from the bubble.
There’s Jokic, the 7-foot centre taken in the second round in 2014 who has a point guard’s vision and triple-double skills.
And there’s rookie Michael Porter Jr., a sharp-shooting forward who slipped to No. 14 in the draft two years ago because of his balky back.
“What encourages me most is how young we are. What encourages me most is the fact that we have drafted and built this team from an organic method,” Malone said. “We have young players that are growing up and continue to amaze.”
No lead was safe with this cast. No series deficit was too daunting, either.
Denver stormed back from a 3-1 deficit against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. As an encore, the team rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers.
So when the Nuggets fell behind 3-1 to the Lakers, they weren’t dismissed — until they were.
“We’re going to remember this our whole life,” Jokic said of the playoff run. “We had a really good group of guys. There was a lot of fight in us.”
That’s even without one of their starters, Will Barton III, who didn’t play in the bubble due to a knee injury.
“I’m just glad the other teams look at us as a really good team,” said Murray, whose team beat San Antonio in Game 7 last season before losing to Portland in seven games. “They’ve got to play hard. So it was good to see other teams give us that.”
Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap are set to be free agents, while Torrey Craig will be a restricted free agent. Jerami Grant, whose outside shooting gave the Nuggets a big boost in the bubble, holds a player’s option.
JOKIC & MURRAY
Murray and Jokic rank 1-2 in Denver’s NBA history with the highest single post-season scoring totals, according to NBA Stats. Murray finished the playoff run with 504 points, including a pair of 50-point performances against the Jazz.
Jokic wound up with 464 points.
The previous top spot was occupied by Carmelo Anthony, who amassed 435 points when the Nuggets reached the Western Conference finals in 2009 before being eliminated by the Lakers.
The 21-year-old Porter gave a glimpse of his talent in the bubble. He had a career-high 37 points and 12 rebounds in a win over Oklahoma City on Aug. 3. Two days later, he went for 30 points and a career-high 15 boards against San Antonio. No Nuggets rookie has ever scored more than 67 points in a two-game stretch, according to the team.
Porter averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in the playoffs.
Next step: Improve on defence.
“I always go back to when the playoffs started, and asked him the question: `Do you want to be a great scorer or do you want to be a great player? If you want to be a great player, you have to buy into the other end,”’ Malone said. “He’s shown that he wants to and he’s shown that commitment.”
Jokic had 30 points and 14 rebounds in Game 7 of the Utah series. It’s the third time he’s posted at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in a Game 7. Only Tim Duncan and James have more with four each.