In the aftermath of the Denver Nuggets’ strained conquest of the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals, much of the focus has gone to the Clippers, who collapsed in increasingly dramatic fashion upon gaining a 3-1 edge in the seven-game set. And that is fair, very fair. As RealGM’s Colin McGowan notes at eloquent length, they were a particularly schadenfreude-inspiring team that, to boot, carries with them a spiritual lack that feels endemic to their franchise’s origins; an unshakeable ghost of mediocrity and inauthenticity, the repeated burning of which is a sort of medicine to many dedicated NBA followers.
But on the flip-side of this epic demise is the joyful rise of one of the league’s youngest, most unique teams. Technically the 11th youngest roster as measured by median age, the Nuggets’ average lived experience is dragged way up by the lone veteran within their rotation, 35-year-old Paul Millsap. It’s also worth noting that 29-year-old starter Will Barton has been injured for the entirety of the Nuggets’ Orlando bubble experience, and that the super-green Michael Porter Jr., recently 22, has taken the lion’s share of his minutes. These guys are young, really young, truly spermatozoic as contenders, and their early ascension has been one of the sport’s most infectious bildungsromans that we’ve seen in some time.
Porter himself presents the most distilled coming-of-age arc of the bunch. He entered the bubble technically a rookie after missing his entire first season because of a potentially life-altering back injury that kept him out of his college playing experience for all but three games—it also caused him to drop out of the lottery range of the 2018 NBA Draft, after once being the No. 1 prospect in the country. During the news cycle of said draft, Porter made some laughably self-aggrandizing comments, likening himself to “a mix of” Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. This comment inspired long-lasting, reasonable doubts about his maturity and sense of himself, doubts which resurfaced when, following a late regular-season explosion of scoring and rebounding productivity, Porter became a defensive liability in the Nuggets’ first round battle against the Utah Jazz, as opposing coach Quin Snyder had his team hunt and destroy Porter in mismatches over and over again. His minutes winnowed as the series swamped on to its Game 7 slugfest, and especially once guard Gary Harris, the stunningly adept and active anchor of the Nuggets’ defense, returned from injury.
Porter then again raised his skeptics’ ears up when he implied he needed more touches and shots after a dispiriting Game 4 beatdown in the next round at the hands of the Clippers. By the time the Nuggets had reached the final sprint of their shocking comeback, though, Porter was ready to put in a box score that coaches everywhere love to see: 15 minutes, two shots, and seven rebounds in Game 7. Numbers that would make any old-school, grit-and-grind, fundamentals-worshipping father blush. His defense has improved faster than just about anyone’s ever has, as well, and Porter's deference for the team’s gravitational centerpiece, Serbian big man Nikola Jokic, also rose over the course of these redemptive games. At one point Porter called Jokic “the best player in the world.”
It’s Jokic who, more than anyone, created the vortex within Porter and the rest of them rose, and the Clippers fell. Second to only LeBron James at making ten professional basketball players, with and against him, move at his speed, the beguiling center is already legend at the age of 25. Said speed of game is singular, and certainly difficult to describe. In the halfcourt, Jokic is easily the slowest MVP candidate since Shaquille O’Neal—who he is slower than. But as a defensive rebounder, the Nuggets often turn stops into baskets faster than anyone else in the league, because of Jokic’s trademark one-handed rebound-to-pass. Harris, Jamal Murray, Porter, Jerami Grant, and the rest of a fast roster built around a slow man has gotten so used to Jokic’s willingness and vision as a passer that most of the league’s best cutters-to-the-rim are all on this team.
And in Murray, Jokic has a duo-mate who’s had the most fearsome fits of scoring fire of anyone in these playoffs. The Canadian is profiled as a lifetime student of Zen meditation in many a broadcast, and when the powers of spiritual presence that this has earned him are manifest in the line between him and the basket, it’s one of the most watchable sights in basketball. Murray had 40 points in the closeout game against Los Angeles, topping off the victory with an absurdly deep, unbalanced three-pointer that devoted fans of Murray were sure would be all net. After that shot, and Grant’s breakaway dunk right after, the Nuggets extended their lead to 20 points, crystallizing the theretofore surreal proof of their concept as they toppled a team that’s been spoken of as one that only LeBron could touch for the past year. Now it’s the Nuggets who go on to face the NBA’s king, instead, and you’d be silly to be surprised by anything they do in his palace, by now.