Renck: While Miami Heat wear “Culture” across their chests, Nuggets show what it actually means on the floor


When Jamal Murray rested his back against a chair Wednesday night, the idea of the Nuggets going back-to-back became more real than ever.

The Nuggets toppled Miami in a rematch of the NBA Finals. It represented their 10th win in their past 11 games and left them with a 46-20 record. That is identical to the mark they had through 66 games last season. And, wouldn’t you know it, they are perched atop the Western Conference. Think that No. 1 seed matters for a team that is 27-6 at home?

The problem with repeating is human nature. The spotlight becomes addictive, the fame, even in the margins, intoxicating. Everyone says the right thing, but then dreams collide at halfcourt and there is only one ball.

Only three franchises have repeated since 2000 – the Lakers, Heat and Warriors. The Nuggets are positioned to become the fourth.

It traces back to Murray and his time on the bench Wednesday. The Nuggets held an 87-82 lead on the road with 5:18 remaining. Murray headed to the scorer’s table with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Time for the starters to re-enter and extinguish the Heat once and for all.

Then something weird happened. Reggie Jackson. In a blink, the begoggled guard, who has been grinding through an agonizing slump, became Mr. March.

He hit a 17-foot jumper. Then he added another. Somewhere between that shot and a 26-footer, Murray and Pope began walking back to the Nuggets bench.

“Both of those guys said to me, ‘Let Reggie Ride. Let CB (Christian Braun) ride. This group is playing well.’ Part of our culture, and we do have a culture in Denver as well,” explained coach Michael Malone, deftly praising his team while taking a dig at Miami’s “Heat Culture” jerseys. “Part of our culture is being selfless, getting over yourself.”

While the Heat wore “Culture” across their chest, the Nuggets showed what it actually meant on the floor.

What unfolded Wednesday did not happen in a vacuum. This is who the Nuggets are. When the best player in the world — Nikola Jokic is methodically walking into the arms of his third MVP award — favors “We” over “Me,” it sets a standard for the entire roster. Jokic averages 26 points, 12.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists. He is inevitable offensively and could drop 35 a night if he chose. Instead, he elects to win by involving his teammates, some of whom have even taken to adopting his pre and postgame routines.

Jokic scored 12 vs. the Heat, and the Nuggets won without racing their pulse. This is what happens when there is buy-in. It was not required for Jokic and Murray to force the issue. They combined for 26 points. Michael Porter Jr., cooking with grease since the All-Star break, poured in 25.

The way they do it is not always sexy.

The Nuggets are the new Spurs, with Jokic a better version of Tim Duncan. They can play fast and smart. And when the fourth quarter arrives, they get comfortable with fundamentals. Their heartbeat slows, trust surfaces, they make a few stops, grab a few rebounds and then shake hands.

They make the difficult look routine — and seem more empowered because the bench is improving, evolving. Peyton Watson brings the burst, the bounce and the blocks, Braun boasts defense, and, on Wednesday, Jackson knocked down shots. They need those three to shine in the playoffs.

I foolishly thought this type of performance might earn respect. But flipping through the channels Thursday morning, I stopped on FS1’s “Undisputed” when I heard a Nuggets topic. Keyshawn Johnson explained he was not convinced the Nuggets would repeat, admitting, “I don’t like Denver.” Skip Bayless agreed, saying he thinks the Lakers can beat the Nuggets in a seven-game series. All they have to do, he insisted, is get over the hump.

The Lakers? Really? The team Denver has beaten eight straight times? The team the Kings just swept 5-0 in their season series?

Skip, the Lakers know more about humps than Wednesday.

I get it. The Nuggets are not for everyone. They are a bit old school. They make the extra pass, switch on defense now and again, and Jokic works his wizardry below the rim. It has taken years for his Sombor Shuffle fadeaway to be viewed as brilliant, not some glorious accident.

The Nuggets show up and do their job efficiently, unselfishly. Aaron Gordon can make rims beg for forgiveness on dunks. And Murray is capable of dropping jaws with a flurry of 3s. But the Nuggets don’t always make adjectives squirm. They don’t have to.

The best teams play for something bigger, play for each other. Delivering one title is hard enough. Repeating requires navigation of endless potholes. The Nuggets will do it because they know the key to winning two is involving everyone.

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