The Denver Nuggets’ mascot, Rocky, an anthropomorphic mountain lion with a lightning bolt for a tail, dragged a pickax as he stormed around, trying to figure out where all the chatter was coming from. He needed to quiet the voices. They were disrespecting his team.
For weeks, the Nuggets had dominated the N.B.A. playoffs. And for weeks, they thought, no one in the news media had given them their due. Not when they beat Minnesota and Phoenix in the first two rounds. Not when they swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
Now Rocky was ready to avenge them — metaphorically, at least — in a video the Nuggets played during a break in Game 1 of the N.B.A. finals on Thursday night.
In an audio montage of slights from pundits, Nuggets Coach Michael Malone lamented the national sports coverage during the conference finals. “And all everybody talked about was the Lakers!” he said just before Rocky found a television in a room and smashed it with his pickax. He kept smashing items until the video showed a framed picture of an unidentifiable Lakers player lying shattered on the ground.
Denver’s finals opponent, the Miami Heat, didn’t fare much better at the start of the championship round on Thursday. The Nuggets led by as many as 24 points and won, 104-93. They entered the series as heavy favorites, an unfamiliar position.
“Even when we win, they talk about the other team,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. He added, “It fuels us a little more and will be sweeter when we win the chip.”
Neither the Nuggets, the West’s top seed, nor the Heat, the East’s eighth seed, feel that their abilities have been fully respected this postseason, and both teams have used that as motivation. Turning perceived disrespect into fuel is a common technique in sports, even when the slights are only imagined, or perhaps even deserved.
Michael Jordan made disrespect a theme of his speech when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, bringing up a time when he was cut from the varsity team at his high school. Later in his career, Jordan invented a moment of disrespect from an opponent named LaBradford Smith, who he said taunted him after scoring 37 points in a game for Washington against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in March 1993. Intent on humiliating Smith, Jordan scored 47 points against Washington the next night.
The Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal would often tell a story about the Spurs great David Robinson snubbing him for an autograph when O’Neal was young. He said that snub motivated him in his playing career, but later admitted it never happened.
“David, I want to say I apologize for making up that rumor,” O’Neal said during an N.B.A. video conference in May 2020, nine years after O’Neal had retired. Robinson, who was on the call, burst out laughing.
While Jordan and O’Neal concocted tales of offense, the Miami Heat saw a disregard that was real.
Miami slipped into the postseason, which is why few expected them to make the run that they did. They lost their first game in the play-in tournament before winning the sudden-death second game to get into the playoffs as the eighth seed.
During the Eastern Conference finals, when Miami faced the second-seeded Boston Celtics, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra took issue with the news media coverage his team received during the regular season.
“I guess nobody is really paying attention,” Spoelstra said, when asked why the team kept believing in itself even when it struggled. He added: “Whether that turns into confidence or not, sometimes you don’t have the confidence. But at least you have that experience of going through stuff and you understand how tough it is.”
The Heat beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, and upset the Celtics in the conference finals, taking the decisive Game 7 on the road in Boston.
Even during that series, they showed why people had doubts. They raced out to a 3-0 series lead against Boston, which led to the Celtics treating themselves like underdogs. But then the Heat dropped three straight games as they turned the ball over and struggled offensively — what you might expect from an eighth seed against an experienced team like the Celtics, who went to the N.B.A. finals last season.
On the other hand, the Nuggets have held steady in their strengths — the all-around play of Nikola Jokic, who has won the Most Valuable Player Award twice; the dynamic scoring and passing of Murray; the fluid offense and hustle from role players like Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They’ve been the best team in the West since December.
But even then, as Malone and Murray said, they felt much of the attention from the news media and basketball fans had been devoted to, well, everyone else. Like the Lakers.
Therein lay another example of the pervasiveness of using perceived disrespect as motivation: The Lakers did it, too. Lakers Coach Darvin Ham often reminded his team that few believed they could make the playoffs early in the season. He left out that the lack of belief in their ability was based not on bias, but on performance. The Lakers started the season 2-10 and played consistently better only after overhauling the roster in January and February.
The motivational technique worked all the way until they met the Nuggets in the conference finals.
The Heat have undergone an even sharper turnaround. Their best player, Jimmy Butler, has become known for elevating his play in the postseason, and round by round they have defied expectations to get to the finals.
It’s perhaps why the Nuggets aren’t giving the Heat the opportunity to feel disrespected by them.
“Who said that we are favorites?” Jokic said on Wednesday. “The media?”
He was told that Las Vegas betting odds counted the Nuggets as favorites.
“I think we are not the favorite,” Jokic said, having become more comfortable as the underdog. “I think in the finals there is no favorites. This is going to be the hardest game of our life, and we know that.”
Mostly, it was not the hardest game of their lives. The Nuggets had a 24-point lead in the third quarter and used their size advantage to disorient the Heat.
But as the Nuggets expected, Miami fought back. The Heat cut the Nuggets’ lead to 9 points with 2:34 left in the game. Miami used a mixture of defensive techniques that have helped them to comeback wins at other points in the postseason just when their opponents felt safe to discount them.
“We knew they were going to do that,” Murray said. “That’s how they play and that’s how they win games, is just be relentless in that sense.”
Often fueled by disrespect themselves, the Nuggets understood the perils of disrespecting an opponent.
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