Five observations from a historic night for the Nuggets and the latest disappointing night for the Mavericks:
The Denver Nuggets got what they needed. Got it Wednesday with the 124-110 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the accomplishment of the moment, and got it in the bigger picture with the 4-1 series win that should be ideal preparation for the first trip to the Western Conference finals since 1985.
The semis were much closer than 4-1, a very valuable development. The Nuggets, after an easier time in the first round against New Orleans, got a good test from Dallas and responded in a way that will build momentum and confidence moving forward. On a roster with several key players who have not gone this far before --
Game 1 was a 14-point victory, but was close until the last five or six minutes. Game 2 was a 12-point victory and the only real blowout, with the Nuggets taking control in the early moments of the fourth quarter and pulling away. Game 3 was a one-point victory. Game 4 was the Dallas win, by two points. Game 5, the clincher Tuesday, was a 14-point victory, but close until the last six or seven minutes. The Nuggets faced pressure situations and a hostile road environment, adding up to constant opportunities to lose their focus, and delivered.
Now we know for sure.
Maybe the Nuggets find out their next opponent Thursday night, if the Lakers win. Maybe the Nuggets get a longer rest, if the Rockets win at home to force a Game 7. Denver lost three of four to each in the regular season, except that this isn't the regular season anymore, on the calendar and on the court, as the Nuggets advance as the team playing the best in the West.
The Nuggets will be clear favorites against Houston, though the Rockets coming back to win their semifinal might prove they are indestructible. The Nuggets will be the choice of many, but probably not everyone, against L.A. Try finding many people who would have made that claim a month ago.
The Mavericks weren't going to win the series. Good showing, prideful showing, but they didn't have a real shot at winning three in a row the way Denver was playing and forcing a return to Dallas would only have led to an uncomfortable Game 6 at American Airlines Center.
Tension between fans there and Nuggets players and family members had already become more of a story than the league preferred. The next time there would have included mentions of increased security and which family members may or may not have been in the same area code as the Mavs owners. Bad -- so bad that vice president for player personnel
Dallas seemed to be teetering on the verge of extinction at the start of the season, so winning one series and playing a competitive second round against the most consistent team in the conference is an accomplishment with the proper perspective.
The showdown continues in Orlando.
Also, the Magic will play the Celtics. Dangling both feet over the ledge, Orlando is facing elimination and the completion of a meltdown that began late in the regular season, continued in parts of the first round against the 76ers and now includes the face of the franchise calling out the coach. Van Gundy has already predictably dismissed Howard's postgame criticism from Tuesday in Boston as playoff emotions, but the words can't be dismissed no matter what happens Thursday night. A star player dueling with the coach carries for months and will bubble back to the surface if, for example, the Magic get off to a slow start next season and Howard isn't getting his touches. This story has legs, everyone knows how it turns out if Howard remains unhappy, and his shots will be tracked Thursday night and for months.
Lakers-Rockets is also an elimination game with more in play than just the outcome. An L.A. loss moves all the questions about the inability to apply a knockout punch back to the forefront. In the real concern, it would also move the series back to Staples Center for a Game 7 with the Lakers finding out the real meaning of pressure.