It was the most surprising, inspiring victory in the long and not particularly accomplished history of the Denver Nuggets. And it completed one of the great postseason upsets in the NBA to that point — the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.
On the other hand, George Karl, who was coaching the No. 1 seed that day, calls it “the worst loss of my life,” which is saying something.
I was there that Sunday afternoon, at the old Seattle Coliseum, so I went down to the basement and dug out the original game book. It is a little more than eighteen years old now. The officials were Jess Kersey, Dick Bavetta and Jack Nies. Bavetta, unbelievably, is still officiating at the age of seventy-two.
Karl remembers it as “Mutombo beating us in Seattle,” perhaps because the iconic image is the Nuggets center lying on the hardwood when the overtime was done, holding the basketball above his head with both hands, a delighted grin on his face. With fifteen rebounds and eight blocked shots, Dikembe Mutombo did, indeed, play a major role.
But the stars for the Nuggets that afternoon were reserves. Point guard Robert Pack came off the bench to replace an ineffective Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and led them with twenty-three points on eight-for-fifteen shooting, including three of five three-pointers.
The late Brian Williams, who would change his name to Bison Dele before being murdered by his brother eight years later, put up seventeen points and nineteen rebounds in thirty-four minutes off the bench, the most inspired performance of his career. When I asked him afterward what had gotten into him, he looked at me as if astonished it wasn’t obvious: “That was desire!” he said.
Eighteen years later, the Nuggets have a chance to add another improbable first-round upset to their resume, this time with Karl coaching for them instead of against them. His syntax was somewhat twisted as he reflected on that Thursday night after the Nuggets beat the Lakers to even their series at three games apiece, but his sentiment was not:
“I’m just hoping to become Denver Nugget history, (from) the worst loss of my life to hopefully the best win in Denver Nugget history. The worst loss is Mutombo beating us in Seattle, and maybe I can put another one up on the board that rocks history a little bit.”
To do it, the Nuggets will need exactly what they brought to the Seattle Coliseum that day a generation ago: Desire. They will need to want it more. They will need to play with the audacity of conviction and make the Lakers, like the Sonics on May 7, 1994, struggle with the weight of expectations and gathering gloom.
“You’ve got two histories against you,” Karl said. “You’ve got Game 7 and you’ve got 3-1 series. You’ve got both of them working against you. I think we might be too young to understand all that, so I might keep it away from them. I’m not sure we’re going to talk a lot about anything except the energy of the game and how important it is to us.”
Historically, the road team wins Game 7 about twenty percent of the time. The last time a team came from a three-games-to-one series deficit to win was six years ago, when the Suns did it . . . to the Lakers. In ten tries, the Nuggets have never done it.
Since frittering away their series lead, the Lakers have engaged in some finger-pointing. Coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant have blamed big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. For Game 7, L.A. gets back the former Ron Artest, who changed his name to Metta World Peace in an Orwellian response to his history of violence, most recently enhanced by a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden. His seven-game suspension ended with Game 6.
“We’ve got to continue to get to the paint, we’ve got to hopefully fall into the three ball a little bit more than it has been in the first five games and defend them better than we did (in Game 6),” said Karl, who turns sixty-one today. “And if we do all that stuff, I think it’ll be a fourth-quarter game and we’ll figure out how to beat that closer system that you guys have said we can’t win because we don’t have a closer.”
That’s a reference to the knock on the Nuggets at the end of close games since trading Carmelo Anthony in the middle of last season. Playing with a deep ensemble cast, they have demonstrated the unpredictable virtues of true team basketball. At the same time, it’s never quite clear who they want to take the big shot at the end of games. If Ty Lawson is hot, as he was in Game 6, it would surely be him. If Danilo Gallinari is on, it might be him. Just as likely, it’s whoever’s open.
The last time the Nuggets played a Game 7 was also eighteen years ago, in the series that followed their upset of Karl’s Sonics. The Utah Jazz won the first three games of their best-of-seven, second-round series, then the Nuggets roared back to win three straight, just as they had come back from a two-games-to-none deficit to tie the Sonics series.
Game 7 was in Salt Lake City on May 21, 1994. The Nuggets shot poorly and fell behind early, trailing by seven after one quarter, by eight at halftime and by fifteen after three quarters. They did their best to narrow the gap in the fourth, but Utah prevailed, 91-81. Karl Malone had thirty-one points, fourteen rebounds and six assists, playing all but two minutes of the game.
Eighteen years later, Karl hopes to improve his record to 1-1 in memorable Nuggets playoff upsets.
“I just want to help them,” he said. “My whole goal in Game 7 is coach ’em up and help ’em have a chance to kick somebody and make history. It’d be fun. It’d be fun for me. It’ll be a great opportunity. It’s been a great challenge.”