Can the Denver Nuggets win another NBA championship?

LOS ANGELES — When Victor Wembanyama led the San Antonio Spurs to a stunning victory over the Denver Nuggets last week, the rookie sensation provided an unwelcome reminder to the reigning NBA champions: Title defense is tricky business.

Rather than entering the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the loss dropped Denver to second and into the first round with the Los Angeles Lakers, who reached the finals of the Western Conference last year. Had the Nuggets held off the lowly Spurs in the penultimate game of the regular season, they would have tied the New Orleans Pelicans, who haven’t won a series since 2018 and lost Zion Williamson due to a hamstring injury during Tuesday’s play-in game. . They will now begin Saturday against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers, who went 11-3 to close the season, and could face Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, the only opponent to push them to six games in the last year’s playoffs, in the second round.

The loss to the Spurs will be an afterthought if Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray combine to lead another charmed postseason run, but for now, it serves as a warning not to take anything for granted. Denver, looking to become the fourth team to repeat its championship title in the last 20 years, cruised through the 2023 playoffs with a 16-4 record, gaining momentum heading into the Larry O Trophy ‘Brien. However, recent history strongly suggests that this year’s path won’t be as pretty: the last four defending champions saw their title defenses end before the conference finals, and Denver must survive improved competition.

“It’s a great team we’re playing,” James said, carefully downplaying any residual animosity from last year ahead of their rematch. “A team that won the championship, so they played in a lot of big games. They know what they want to achieve at the end of the match. We have to be very disciplined. We need to think about it. This is going to be a challenge. … The game is not won in the reports. The game is won between the four lines.

Excellent health has been key to Denver’s championship run, and it will be an obvious key to its title defense. The Nuggets’ top seven rotation players combined to miss zero games in the 2023 playoffs, giving them a clear health advantage over their last three opponents: Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton missed time for Phoenix, James was nursing a foot injury in the West final, and Tyler Herro missed the final for Miami.

Denver knows what it’s like to make the playoffs with fewer players. With Murray sidelined due to a serious knee injury, the Nuggets were swept in the second round by the Suns in 2021 and eliminated in the first round by the Golden State Warriors in 2022. This season, Denver went from superhuman (44-15) to mortal (13-10) when Murray was sidelined despite a brilliant campaign from Jokic, who is favored to win his third MVP award. The Nuggets got quality contributions off the bench from Peyton Watson and Christian Braun, but the loss of Bruce Brown in free agency and the lack of an offseason signing addition could prove problematic in the event of an injury.

Murray, who played an average of 40 minutes in the 2023 playoffs, must put lingering ankle injuries behind him if Denver is to survive its most formidable conference competition. The West’s top eight teams averaged 52 wins this season, a dramatic increase from last season’s 46.3. As a reminder, none of Denver’s four 2023 playoff opponents have won more than 45 games. If the Nuggets return to the Finals and face one of the top seven seeds in the Eastern Conference, they will have faced four opponents who have each won at least 47 games.

The Lakers have struggled mightily against the Nuggets — going 0-4 this season after being swept in the 2023 West Finals — but they enter the first round with reason for optimism. James, 39, moves better and shoots much better from outside, and his supporting cast has had a full season to deal with after a major upset at last season’s trade deadline. It’s important to note that guard D’Angelo Russell left behind a terrible 2023 playoff run to become a consistent weapon. And thanks to James and Davis, the Lakers are one of the few teams that can compete favorably with the Nuggets’ wide, physical front line.

“This will probably be the toughest series we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Jokic said Wednesday in Denver. “It’s a really talented team. They are really well built. They added a few guys. I have immense respect for them. Yes, we beat them eight times in a row. Can we not talk about it anymore? We have to stop them in transition, especially LeBron, and stop them in the paint. (Davis) is a monster out there. Get them off the three-point line. The details will make a big difference.

The Suns and Timberwolves, who lost to the Nuggets in the first round last year, have also improved from a chemistry and cohesion standpoint. Durant had little time to prepare for the 2023 playoffs due to a midseason trade and an ankle injury, while Minnesota center Rudy Gobert entered the postseason on a negative note following a suspension for throwing a punch at teammate Kyle Anderson.

Even though Phoenix suffers from a thin front line and Minnesota’s offense leaves a lot to be desired, both teams should push Denver harder than they did a year ago if they meet in the second round. Meanwhile, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Oklahoma City Thunder and Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks enter the playoffs with explosive offenses, improved defenses and enough late-season momentum to pose credible threats to Denver during the West final.

“There are 15 other teams that want what we have,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Thursday. “We have the world championship trophy and everyone is trying to take it from us. Last year we didn’t have that. We went into the playoffs very hungry and trying to do something special. But now you win a championship, and here’s a very hungry Lakers team that’s pissed off that you beat them eight times in a row, and you have teams waiting for you in the next round. Western Conference Talent – ​​(Phoenix) Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker are a sixth seed.

Even though the Nuggets don’t have the luxury of looking that far ahead, the Boston Celtics are shaping up to be a much more serious Finals contender than last year’s Heat. Boston finished the season first in wins (64), point differential (plus-11.3) and offensive efficiency (122.2) and second in defensive efficiency (110.6), blowing away the competition thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday.

The Celtics’ biggest advantage might be the conference imbalance. Their first-round opponent will be the Heat, who lost Jimmy Butler to a knee injury in Wednesday’s play-in game, but beat the Chicago Bulls, 112-91, on Friday to secure the eighth seed place in the East. Next up would be a second-round meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who haven’t won a series without James since 2003, or newcomer Orlando Magic, who haven’t won a series since 2010. With Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid facing Due to major health concerns, Boston has a great opportunity to cross the East before enjoying home-court advantage in the Finals.

Regardless of the opponent, Jokic will be Denver’s asset. The 29-year-old center averaged 26.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists while leading the Nuggets to 57 wins, the best record of his nine-year career. With Jokic punishing opponents on the block and orchestrating from the elbow, the Nuggets’ starting lineup posted a remarkable plus-13.6 net rating through nearly 1,000 minutes together.

“When you have the ability to score at will, it makes your passing even more dynamic,” James said of Jokic. “We’ve had some great passers in the history of our league. We had great, selfless guys. But if that’s all you can do, teams can force you to score and take that (death). Guys like Luka, Magic (Johnson) in his prime, (Jokic) and myself – if you try to take away our passing, we can still be effective.

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