Looking Back At Better Times — The 1994 Denver Nuggets


With the 2014-2015 Denver Nuggets securely out of the Playoff picture, I thought I would look back to a better time in Nuggets history. I chose to take a look at the 1993-1994 Denver Nuggets, who were the first ever eight-seed to upset a one-seed in the NBA Playoffs. The 1993-1994 Nuggets were not expected to be a very good basketball team, but they proved the critics wrong.

The franchise had just (barely) survived the Paul Westhead era and was rebuilding through the draft. They had three consecutive good drafts by picking Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) in 1990, Dikembe Mutombo in 1991, and LaPhonso Ellis and Bryant Stith in 1992. These were the players that laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable Playoff runs in Nuggets history.

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The team was coached by Nuggets legend Dan Issel, who had taken over for Westhead after the 1991-1992 season and won 36 games in his first as an NBA head coach. Mutombo was the anchor on defense,while Rauf and Ellis led the offense — along with versatile forward Reggie Williams. Contributions were made up and down the roster, with Brian Williams (later Bison Dele), Bryant Stith, Robert Pack, Rodney Rodgers and Tom Hammonds having large impacts during the course of the season.

As expected, the season started out with the Nuggets coming out of the gate slowly and on December 18th of 1993, they sat at 9-13 — fifth place in the Midwest Division. They would have several ups and downs over the course of the season. After starting 9-13, they won five in a row to get over .500 for the first time (14-13). They would have multiple winning streaks of four games or more, and multiple losing streaks of four or more as well.

On April 5, 1994, the Nuggets were sitting at 35-36 with 11 games to go. They were in the Playoffs at that point, due to a rare bad season for the Los Angeles Lakers, who ended the season 33-49 and in ninth place in the Western Conference.

They would end the season strong by winning seven of their last 11 games to get to 42-40 on the season, which was the first season over .500 for the franchise since 1989. The good news was that the Nuggets made the Playoffs for the first time since Doug Moe was at the helm, the bad news was they had to face the Seattle Supersonics coached by future Nuggets coach George Karl. The Sonics were a juggernaut in 1993-1994, winning 63 games on the season and taking the Western Conference number one seed by five games over the Houston Rockets.

It seemed like it was one of the most lopsided first-round matchups ever, but that is why they play the games! The first round series was a best-of-five back then, which allowed for more upset possibilities, but no informed basketball fan or pundit would give the Nuggets any chance against the well oiled Sonics in this series. The series started out as expected, with the Nuggets heading up to Seattle and getting throttled in Game 1 by a 106-82 score. It appeared that the rout was on and it would take only three games to dispatch the upstart Nuggets. Game 2 was much of the same as the Sonics jumped out to a huge early lead and withstood a furious Nuggets second-half rally to win 97-87. That was when things changed.

The Nuggets returned to Denver licking their wounds from the first two games and seemed on the brink of elimination going into Game 3 at McNichols Arena. But with a raucous crowd, a fired up pre-game speech from John Elway, and an appearance by boxing announcer Michael Buffer (ARE YOU READY TO MUTOMBO!!!!!!), the team came out on fire and dispatched the Sonics surprisingly easily, winning Game 3 by a 110-93 score. The Sonics looked shocked at the Nuggets play throughout Game 3 and it carried over into Game 4, as they would methodically take apart the Sonics and win going away, 94-85, tying the series at two games apiece.

Game 5 was slated for the Seattle Arena on May 7, 1994, and the belief was the Nuggets had a nice couple of games, but the Sonics would take care of business on their home floor, and dispatch the pesky Nuggets with ease. The Nuggets response to this was “Not so fast!”, as they stayed with the Sonics throughout the game. Ellis and Brian Williams held Sonic superstar Shawn Kemp in check most the game as they made him work extremely hard for all of his 19 points on the day. When the two forwards weren’t taking care of Kemp, Mutombo was swatting shots all over the arena — ending with 7 blocks. Pack was the Nuggets best player, frustrating the Sonics future Hall of Fame point guard, Gary Payton, all day on defense, while tossing in a team-high 23 points as well. Williams finished with 17 points and 19 rebounds, and Ellis added 19 points as the Nuggets shocked the Sonics, and the world, winning in Seattle 98-94, to dispatch the 63-win Sonics.

The image included with this post is one of the most iconic images in Nuggets history, showing Mutombo on the floor of the Seattle Arena clutching the ball and crying in jubilation after the Nuggets had beaten the Sonics. It was as improbable an outcome as had ever occurred in the history of the NBA to that point, and the entire country was transfixed on this young Nuggets team and they wanted to see what would happen next.

What would happen is the Nuggets would head for Salt Lake City for the start of a best-of-seven series against the Utah Jazz. The Jazz were led by future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, and the Nuggets chances for pulling another upset did not look too bright. That played out in the first three games of the series, with the Jazz would whip the Nuggets by scores of 100-91, 104-94 and 111-109 — taking a 3-0 lead in the series. Things looked bleak for the Nuggets going into Game 4 at Big Mac, but that’s when a light went on and the series took a surprising turn.

The Nuggets played really well in Game 3, losing by only two points, and they parlayed that good play into Game 4 as they used late free-throws and a slow-down tactic to beat the Jazz 83-82. The series moved back to Utah for Game 5 and the Nuggets were up to the challenge once again. They would overcome several 10-point Jazz leads and dominate the fourth quarter, winning the game going away by a 109-101 score.

They returned to Denver with growing confidence and it showed up again in Game 6, as the Nuggets would hold off a late Jazz rally and win 94-91, sending the series back to Salt Lake City for a deciding seventh game. The Nuggets played valiantly, but had run out of gas after the emotion and hard play of the previous 11 games, succumbing to the more talented Jazz 91-81, ending one of the best and most unlikely Playoff runs in Nuggets history.

They beat the 63-win Sonics, who held the best record in the league that season, and then took the 53-win Jazz to seven games, before finally running out of magic.

The 1993-1994 season was not expected to be a historic one for the Nuggets, as they were trying to build a team that could compete in a couple of years time. This was accelerated by the shocking upset of the Sonics and battling the Jazz the way they did. It was a great time to be a Nuggets fan and I was lucky to be able to be in McNichols Arena for each of the five home Playoff games. McNichols had never been louder and the fans never so engaged with a young, exciting team as they were for those three weeks in 1994.

The post script of this amazing run was that Nuggets management could not keep this team together after the 1995 season, and the Nuggets returned to below mediocre levels for the balance of the 90’s.

Photo Credit to Denver Nuggets Archives.