Monstars vs. The Bad News Bears. Game 7. Winner gets LeBron.
“I almost feel like we’re The Bad News Bears and I’m Coach Buttermaker,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone offered on the eve of Tuesday’s showdown with the big, bad Los Angeles Clippers. “We’re a team that nobody really looks at and takes us seriously. And our guys, I think, have taken that personally.”
You know who these Clippers are? The Monstars. The best of everything, nicked from everywhere. A finely crafted, ruthless basketball machine. Kawhi. PG13. Mr. 94 Feet. LouWill. Trezz. Doc.
In the other corner? Pure Looney Tunes. A Serbian who shoots off his back foot. A Canadian who’s into Bruce Lee. A rookie with a wonky back. A defensive stopper with hip issues. A 35-year-old power forward. Manute Bol’s kid. Misfits and oddballs who don’t know when to quit.
“But we don’t believe (that label),” said Malone, who sounds like he’s having the time of his life making the Charles Barkleys of the world pound crow. “We don’t believe that’s what we are. We feel that we’re just as good as anybody. We feel like we’re an NBA championship-caliber team.”
The Clippers may call Hollywood home, but the Nuggets are the ones living out a movie script. Down 3-1. Back off the mat. Down 3-1. Back again. Jason Voorhees didn’t have this many lives. Or defy this much logic, this quickly.
“Everybody counted us out in the Utah series,” Malone said. “Everyone’s counted us out going into this (Clippers) series. I think on ESPN, they had polled 19 of their ‘experts’ and most had us losing in four games or five games, a few in six. And not one person picked us to get to Game 7 or win the series. And I understand that. But I think it’s something that we’ve embraced. We’ve enjoyed playing the role of a spoiler.
“This is, hey, it’s all about the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat, the Lakers. And everybody can’t wait for the (All-) Los Angeles Western Conference finals. But there’s a little city in Colorado called Denver. And you know, we’re trying to do our part to make some noise and kind of further cement our position in the Western Conference and the NBA hierarchy. Because we feel we belong there.”
Whatever happens Tuesday, the rest of the country is starting to figure out that the Nuggets belong, too.
The Nuggets aren’t just battling the Jazz and Clippers. They’ve been wrestling with two generations of NBA narratives, tagged by the coastal cool kids as a flyover franchise in a flyover town that hasn’t won jack since the ABA merger more than four decades ago. Funky uniforms and freaky altitude. Perennial postseason bridesmaids. The Atlanta Hawks of the West.
“And coming into this season, I felt a lot of people (said), ‘Yeah, the Nuggets are a good team, but...’ There’s always a ‘but,’” Malone mused. “And I think in these playoffs, and (in) this situation and this bubble, how challenging this situation can be, for us to continue to rise again and again from the face of adversity, I think we’re taking the ‘but’ away. It’s, ‘The Nuggets are a good team.’ Period. And it’s great to be a part of that … helping lead a group of men that are wonderful to be around.”
Speaking of that group, if you’re Buttermaker, then which one of your motley crew is Kelly Leak?
“As far as the Kelly Leak, I don’t know,” Malone replied with a grin. “I can’t picture one of our guys running a dirt bike in the outfield, getting away from security. I was more of a Tanner (Boyle) guy myself, who told the Yankees to take that trophy and shove up their you-know-what.
“But it is satisfying. It’s satisfying to win. It’s satisfying to be in the playoffs and do some things that are historical in nature for the NBA, but also for (the) Denver Nuggets franchise.”
If the Monstars prevail, they can shove it where the sun doesn’t shine. But if we’ve learned anything from the last two weeks, it’s that ya never know. This spoiler thing? To paraphrase a wise baseball man, it’s a hard habit to break, once you start.