Nuggets made history with upset of Seattle
A look back at Denver's improbable comeback to beat the SuperSonics in 1994
The brooms were out and the taunts rained down from every corner of Key Arena.
The mighty Seattle SuperSonics were in control of a series that few people doubted they would win – most likely in three games, possibly in four.
Trailing 2-0, the Denver Nuggets were among the minority of those who still believed they had a chance to survive in the first round of the 1994 Western Conference playoffs.
They walked to the visiting locker room defeated but undaunted as the scene prepared to shift to the high altitude of McNichols Sports Arena.
Despite their predicament, the Nuggets had reason to be confident heading into Game 3 of the best-of-5 series against the top-seeded Sonics. Denver had beaten Seattle twice at home during the regular season, including a 14-point victory a month before the playoffs started.
“I think the most dynamic part of that series was how everybody had counted us out,” former Denver guard Bryant Stith said. “We remember people talking about the sweep and how Seattle fans had the brooms out in Game 2.”
Sonics fans also had no idea how far-fetched their ambitions really were.
Fountain of Youth
Led by a second-year coach, a second-year power forward and a third-year center, the Nuggets started the 1993-94 season as the youngest team in the NBA. At 29, Reggie Williams was the oldest player. The team’s average age hovered around 24 years old – remarkably young in an era before teenagers and one-year college players began dominating the NBA Draft.
Like many young teams, the Nuggets struggled with consistency. They were excellent at home, winning 10 of their first 12 games at McNichols Arena, but they struggled on the road. A 10-game stretch from Dec. 11-30 served as a microcosm of the season: After a winless five-game road trip, they responded with a five-game winning streak.
The one thing that rarely wavered was their confidence.
“Even thought we were hovering around .500, we had confidence we could win,” forward Tom Hammonds recalled. “As the season progressed, we thought we could beat anybody.”
And why not? They had a dominating shot-blocking center in Dikembe Mutombo, an athletic power forward in LaPhonso Ellis and a sweet-shooting guard in Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. All three were top-five picks drafted within three years of one another.
Denver also played with a toughness that reflected their head coach Dan Issel, a Hall of Fame forward who embraced physical play and tormented opponents with his ability to score, rebound and make plays for others.
As the season went along, Issel settled into a consistent playing rotation. Abdul-Rauf, Ellis, Mutombo, Stith and Reggie Williams started nearly 70 games together, while Hammonds, rookie Rodney Rogers, Robert Pack and Brian Williams formed a formidable second unit.
“It was a really unique group,” Ellis said. “I went on to play another nine years in the league (and) never had the same kind of team chemistry or synergy anywhere else. It was a really special group.”
By the NBA All-Star break, there were few signs that the Nuggets would distinguish themselves from the rest of the playoff contenders in the West. They were 22-25 at that point, a full 14 games behind the high-flying Sonics.
Looking back on it 20 years later, the two teams were on a historic collision course.
Denver’s playoff push began in earnest near the shores of Lake Michigan with back-to-back road wins at Milwaukee and Chicago in mid-February. It kicked off a 13-6 stretch that helped create some distance between the Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers, the only other legitimate contender for the final playoff spot in the West.
“As the season went on, we felt we were getting stronger,” said Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, who was Denver’s video coordinator at the time. “Everyone came together at that time. It was a fun thing to be a part of.”
The Nuggets effectively eliminated the Lakers from the chase with a victory in Los Angeles on April 8 and they clinched their first playoff berth in four years with a win at San Antonio five days later.
The Sonics, meanwhile, breezed into the postseason by winning 17 of their final 19 games. At that point, Seattle looked like an unstoppable force poised for a deep playoff run behind the All-Star tandem of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.
Against the Odds
In the first 10 years after the NBA expanded its playoff format to 16 teams, a No. 8 seed had never toppled No. 1. The David versus Goliath matchup between Denver and Seattle appeared to be no different as the Sonics rolled to a 106-82 victory in Game 1 and a 97-87 win in Game 2.
“We lost the first two games when everybody expected us to lose,” Hammonds said. “We came back and still thought we might have a chance to do something.”
Nuggets fans shared that optimism as they filled the arena for Game 3. Their enthusiasm reached a fever pitch when Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway stepped onto the floor shortly before tipoff and shouted: “Let's get ready to Mutombo!”
“I remember that we were ready to run through a mountain,” Stith said. “We had no idea he was going to do it. We were really excited about that.”
It showed. The Nuggets jumped out to a 41-25 lead after the first quarter and never looked back. Reggie Williams scored 31 points and Mutombo added 19 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots in a 110-93 victory.
Proving that the Sonics were not invincible, the Nuggets had a newfound confidence. The series was on.
“Once we won Game 3, we said, ‘We can win this thing,’ ” Hammonds said.
Stith agreed: “After we won Game 3, the confidence developed seemingly overnight.”
On the eve of Game 4, Mutombo famously told his teammates and the media that he dreamt of another victory at McNichols, and his nocturnal premonition played out on the court.
With momentum on their side, the Nuggets refused to back down from the Sonics in a defensive battle that went to overtime. Mutombo swatted a franchise-record eight shots, and Denver outscored Seattle 12-3 in the extra period to force a deciding Game 5 back at Key Arena.
“Once we won Game 4, there was no doubt in our minds we were going to win Game 5 in Seattle,” Stith said. “We had the secret weapon in Dikembe Mutombo. He always played Shawn Kemp well, so we knew he could neutralize their interior scoring.”
When the Nuggets returned to Seattle, they could sense an apprehension among Sonics fans.
The bravado – along with the brooms – had disappeared.
Soon enough, their playoff dreams disappeared as well.
With Mutombo again dominating the paint (15 rebounds, eight blocks), the Nuggets erased another fourth-quarter deficit, and Game 5 went to overtime. Given five minutes to make history, Denver came up with timely shots and huge defensive stops to complete the magical comeback.
Fittingly, Mutombo grabbed the final rebound and clutched the ball over his head as he fell to the floor in celebration. The image remains part of basketball lore two decades later.
“Whenever anybody talks about my NBA career, they always talk about Dikembe lying on the floor,” Stith said. “They remember seeing me sprint around the floor and how excited they were for me. That was probably the defining moment of my NBA career as a player. Rightfully so, because we had done something that had never been done in NBA history.”
Hammonds and Brown remember sprinting onto the court in celebration – and the stunned silence at Key Arena.
“There were 17,000 people in the stadium, and 25 people were running around embracing each other trying to find somebody to squeeze,” Brown said.
The Nuggets would go on to face the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals. After falling behind 3-0, they nearly made history again by rallying to force Game 7. The comeback fell short, but Denver had gained the respect of everyone around the NBA.
“I thought it was a great thing,” said Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, who was coaching the Portland Trail Blazers at the time. “It just shows what you can do when you get on a roll as a team. Whether you’re young or not, if you believe in yourself, you can go out and accomplish big things.”