By Christopher Dempsey
The most indelible image from the 1993-94 season is the iconic snapshot of Dikembe Mutombo, laying on the Seattle Center Coliseum court clutching the basketball in joy, after the Nuggets had become the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in NBA playoff history.
But it is what happened in the second round of the playoffs that nearly stamped this season as certified gold. The Nuggets faced Utah and its Hall of Fame combination of John Stockton and Karl Malone. It was a best-of-seven series. Utah, which had won 53 times in the regular season, quickly won the first three games.
A one-point Nuggets’ win at home in Game 4. A double overtime Nuggets’ win in Utah in Game 5. A three-point Nuggets’ win in Game 6 back at McNichols Arena.
Suddenly, the Nuggets were on the doorstep of pulling off a second monumental feat – rallying from three games down to win a playoff series. They’d won three straight and stood at the doorstep, 48 minutes away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Utah, however, held the Nuggets off, winning by 10 in Game 7 behind 31 points from Malone. Still, the Nuggets’ performance in those playoffs was enough for many to anoint them as a bonafide team to watch.
That Utah series, as it turned out, was a microcosm of that season. The Nuggets bounced back and forth over and under .500 the entire year, finally winning five of the last seven games to finish 42-40 and set up the historic series against Seattle.
And defense – not breakneck offense — was the Nuggets’ calling card, led by Mutombo, the league’s best shot-blocker. The Nuggets ranked 10th in points allowed (98.8), fourth in blocks (6.1), fourth in defensive rebounds (31.2), second in field goal percentage allowed (43.8,) and first in the league in 3-point percentage allowed (29 percent).
The Nuggets rode that defense, along with the consistent contributions of guards Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Byrant Stith, forwards Reggie Williams and LaPhonso Ellis and a solid bench featuring Robert Pack and Bison Dele, into the playoffs and to the eventual upset of the SuperSonics.
“That was a great team,” Pack said. “That’s something that you can never take from us. …. It really started from the year before. We were a young team playing together. We had won some games the year before and finished the season off strong. We didn’t win many games, but we still finished the season off strong. So, we kind of went into the offseason thinking we could be pretty good. … We came into that camp and that preseason in 1993-94 with confidence.”