PHOENIX (AP) — Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said it was around December when he thought this could be a championship-caliber team.
Jamal Murray was a believer even sooner. Like in 2019.
“When we’re healthy, we know what we can do,” Denver’s point guard said. “We just need everyone on the court. We’ve always had the potential.”
After watching the Nuggets steamroll the Suns in Game 6 to clinch the Western Conference semifinals, it’s hard to argue with him.
Nikola Jokic scored 32 points and finished with a triple-double, Murray added 26 and the Nuggets are off to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2020 after beating the Phoenix Suns 125-100 in Game 6 to clinch the series. Denver has never made the NBA Finals.
The top-seeded Nuggets will play the winner of the Lakers-Warriors series. The Lakers have a 3-2 lead.
No matter who advances in the other series, the Nuggets will likely get less press than their opponent. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Warriors have Steph Curry.
“You can sit there and fight it and complain, or you can embrace who we are and what we have,” Malone said. “I’d rather not waste time with all the pundits who count us out or don’t give us the respect that we deserve as a team.”
Malone said the Nuggets’ critics have one valid argument.
“There’s one thing we haven’t done,” Malone said. “Until we win a championship, people are going to keep saying (negative things) about us. So that’s what drives us, winning a championship. Getting to the Western Conference finals doesn’t do it. Getting to the Finals doesn’t do it.
“It’s winning a championship.”
The Nuggets — led by the Jokic-Murray combo — look as thought they have the chops to pull it off.
Jokic has already had four triple-doubles this postseason in 11 games, contributing 32 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 6. Murray is back to playing at an elite level following his ACL injury. The team also has excellent role players in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr.
That depth was something the Suns simply couldn’t match, particularly after Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton went down with injuries.
The Nuggets took full advantage.
“When you play against a team with their backs against the wall, facing elimination, you just can’t show up and think you can just arrive for this game,” Malone said. “We did not want to be counter punchers. We wanted to go out and strike first.”
Now the Nuggets have a few days to enjoy some well-earned rest while the Lakers and Warriors conclude their series.
Denver is four wins away from playing in the first NBA Finals in franchise history. The last time the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference finals, they lost to the Lakers in 2020 in the Florida bubble.
But the Jokic-Murray combo keeps getting better and they’re looking for a different outcome this time around.
“The last five years, we’ve improved every year,” Jokic said. “We’re making something new. It’s just amazing to be a part of this journey around these games. I think we can do something nice.”