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Can the Denver Nuggets win another NBA Championship?

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

Instead of entering the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, the loss left Denver in second place and into the first round with the Los Angeles Lakers, who won the Western Conference finals last year. reached conference. Had the Nuggets held off the lowly Spurs in the penultimate game of the regular season, they would have drawn the New Orleans Pelicans, who haven’t won a series since 2018 and lost Zion Williamson to a hamstring injury in Tuesday’s play-in game. . Now they open Saturday against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers, who won 11-3 to end the season, and could face Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, the only opponent that defeated them last year pushed to six games in last year’s playoffs. 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 stands as a warning not to take anything for granted. Denver, looking to become the fourth team in the past two decades to repeat as champions, cruised through the 2023 playoffs with a 16-4 record and gained momentum as it neared the Larry O’Brien Trophy. However, recent history strongly suggests that this year’s path won’t be so pretty: The past four defending champions saw their title defenses end before the conference finals, and Denver must survive a goose of improved competition.

“It’s a great team we’re playing against,” James said, carefully downplaying any residual animosity from last year before their rematch. “A team that has won the championship, so they have participated in many big competitions. They know what they want to achieve later in games. We have to be very disciplined. We have to think about it. It’s going to be a challenge. … In the transcripts, the game is not won. The game is won between the four lines.”

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

Denver knows what it’s like to enter the playoffs at less than full strength. With Murray sidelined by 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 fell from superhuman (44-15) to mortal (13-10) as Murray was sidelined despite a brilliant campaign from Jokic, who is favored to win his third MVP award. The Nuggets have gotten quality contributions from Peyton Watson and Christian Braun, but the free agency loss of Bruce Brown and the lack of a signature offseason addition could prove problematic if injury strikes.

Murray, who averaged a whopping 40 minutes during the 2023 playoffs, must put his nagging ankle injuries behind him if Denver wants to survive its more formidable conference competition. The West’s top eight teams averaged 52 wins this season, a dramatic increase from 46.3 last season. For context, none of Denver’s four 2023 playoff opponents won more than 45 games. When the Nuggets return to the Finals and face one of the Eastern Conference’s top seven seeds, they will have played 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 reasons for optimism. James, 39, moves better and shoots much better from outside, and his supporting cast has had a full season to go after a major shakeup around last season’s trade deadline. Importantly, guard D’Angelo Russell has put a terrible 2023 playoffs behind him to emerge as a consistent weapon. And thanks to James and Davis, the Lakers are one of the few teams that can compare favorably to the Nuggets’ large and physical front line.

“It’s probably going to be the toughest series we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Jokic said Wednesday in Denver. “It’s a very talented team. They are really well built. They added a few guys. I have enormous respect for them. Yes, we beat them eight times in a row. Can we not mention that anymore? We have to stop them in transition, especially LeBron, and put them in the paint. (Davis) is a monster 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 taken steps forward 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 dishing out from a punch to teammate Kyle Anderson.

While Phoenix faces a thin front line and Minnesota’s offense leaves much to be desired, both teams should push Denver harder than they did a year ago when 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 a credible threat to Denver in the West finals.

“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 away from us. We didn’t have that last year. We went into the playoffs very hungry and trying to do something special. But now you win a championship, and here comes a hungry Lakers team that’s mad that we beat them eight times in a row, and there’s teams waiting for you in the next round. The talent in the Western Conference – (Phoenix’s) Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker are a sixth seed.”

While the Nuggets don’t have the luxury of looking that far ahead, the Boston Celtics face just as many more serious Finals foils 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 its offseason acquisitions by Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday.

The Celtics’ biggest advantage could 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 defeated the Chicago Bulls 112-91 on Friday to secure the No. 8 seed in the East. Next up would be a second-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who haven’t won a series without James since 2003, or the newcomer Orlando Magic, who haven’t won a series since 2010. Featuring Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid facing off. Major health concerns give Boston an excellent chance to breeze through the East before enjoying home field advantage in the Finals.

Regardless of the opponent, Jokic will be Denver’s ace. 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 net rating of plus-13.6 through nearly 1,000 minutes combined.

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