For the Nuggets, it had been 24 years in the making. The team staring back at them was a familiar foe: The Los Angeles Lakers.
It was the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
The last time the Nuggets had made it this far, 1985, it was the also the Lakers standing between them and the NBA Finals. But since then, Magic Johnson had turned into Kobe Bryant. James Worthy became Pau Gasol. Byron Scott became Trevor Ariza.
The challenge was the same – try and beat one of the NBA’s hallmark franchises. The Nuggets, in some respects, were the surprise contender. The NBA knew they’d be good, but oddsmakers had them more toward the middle of the pack in preseason predictions.
But buoyed by the early season acquisition of Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets were much more than that. They breezed through the season on their way to 54 wins and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. And they did it by being one of the deadliest teams, both offensively and defensively, in the NBA.
The Nuggets carried it over into the playoffs, winning eight of 10 games to beat New Orleans and Dallas on their way to the conference finals matchup with the Lakers.
The challenge was how a largely inexperienced Nuggets team could manage. By midway through the fourth quarter of Game 1, it was obvious. The Nuggets would stick to the script and allow that to see them through. With about six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets were up six. They were not able to hold onto it, however, and the Lakers escaped with a two-point victory.
Game 2 was a Nuggets shocker. Still in Los Angeles, the stars played like stars – Carmelo Anthony had 34 points, Billups had 27, Kenyon Martin had 16 – but it was a huge game from reserve Linas Kleiza that put the Nuggets over the top. He hit four 3-pointers, three in the first half, on his way to 16 points. He added eight rebounds, and the Nuggets led the final 4:26 to notch a 106-103 victory at the Staples Center and knot the series at one game apiece.
Bryant took over with 41 points in Game 3, back in Denver, and the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead with a six-point victory. But the Nuggets weren’t done. J.R. Smith got hot from the 3-point line in Game 4, nailing four, and his 24 points off the bench led seven players in double figures and helped the Nuggets to a blowout 120-101 victory to tie the series at two games apiece.
The Lakers’ experience took over, and they won the final two games to win the series 4-2. And after the Lakers dominated Orlando in the NBA Finals, most experts viewed the Nuggets-Lakers WCF as the “real” Finals. The Nuggets were squarely on the radar with a solid performance on one of the NBA’s biggest stages.