6 reasons why the Nuggets have come this far
The team’s historic sweep of the Lakers owed much to its mental toughness and strong team dynamic.
As several star-studded NBA teams jostled for the spotlight this season, the Denver Nuggets — despite being in first place in the league’s Western Conference for most of the season — were overshadowed by a handful of teams in the Eastern Conference.
But while those other teams soared and then flamed out, the Nuggets kept winning by playing convincingly as a team. What’s more, it looked like they were having fun doing it.
As the Nuggets prepare for their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, RED posed a simple question to Shawn Worthy, Ph.D., a sports-psychology expert and professor in the Department of Human Services and Counseling at Metropolitan State University of Denver: What makes a winning team?
Find each player’s optimal performance level.
Every sport psychologist knows that an athlete’s level of arousal during a sports event can have a major impact on their physical and technical performance. “In basic terms, you don’t want a player coming into a game either too hyped up or too relaxed,” Worthy said. Each athlete, he explained, has an optimal arousal level, a baseline measure at which they will perform best.
Finding that optimal level — and learning how to control and regulate it — is critical for any athlete performing at the peak of sports. And it looks like the Nuggets have cracked that code. “The team’s cool-headed approach, and especially the way they keep their composure when they fall behind, suggests the players are really well-motivated but also in control of their emotions,” Worthy said.
Trust in your team process (and your fellow players).
The Nuggets have a genuine team-first philosophy, and that’s a big factor in their success. Their star player, Nikola Jokic, approaches the game with a team-focused mindset and fully utilizes his fellow players’ talents. “He will often pass up his own shots, even (passing the ball) to players who have just come off the bench, to help the team gain the maximum points,” Worthy said. “When such a talented shooter is pushing the ball out to other players, that’s a sign of great mutual trust.”
This dynamic becomes especially helpful when the Nuggets fall behind because the players clearly believe they’re all in it together and maintain team cohesion. According to Worthy, it also helps Jokic: “If he doesn’t take all the credit when they win, then he also doesn’t need to take on all the blame when things go wrong.”
Embody grit and never give up.
Grit (or mental toughness, or psychological readiness) is a critical quality in top-level sports, and the Nuggets have demonstrated it in spades during recent games. “You can see it in how the players weather the runs that other teams make against them or how they cope with falling behind,” Worthy said. “They always play hard for each other and never lose focus.”
All NBA teams face such crisis moments, Worthy pointed out, but many lose their sense of team coordination when things unravel and start playing as individuals. Not so, the Nuggets. “Even in their darkest moments this season, they have retained their composure and stayed cohesive as a team,” Worthy said. “And that is how you win championships.”
Always focus on the present.
This is a lot easier said than done. “All these players need to be inner perfectionists to even get near the NBA Finals, so it must be personally devastating when they publicly mess up,” Worthy said. And yet, to succeed, they need to immediately put any past mistakes out of their minds and stay focused on what is going on right now.
While it’s incredibly difficult for players to maintain a forward perspective and not “get in their feelings” over costly mistakes, the Nuggets in recent games have given a masterclass in how it can be done. “Just watch Jokic,” Worthy said. “He can throw a bad pass way out of bounds, then casually run back down the court like nothing has happened. That shows incredible mental discipline.”
Trust in repetition and routine.
NBA players put up thousands of shots and dole out hundreds of thousands of passes during their careers, and all that repetition gradually crystalizes into top-notch performances. But they also have another strength: “Maintaining a set routine helps many players create a sense of structure and familiarity, which they can lean on during high-pressure situations,” Worthy said.
Collectively, NBA players have a sprawling collection of superstitions and tics — locker-room habits, pregame rituals, uniform choices, even specific behaviors on the court — which help focus their attention on the familiar rather than the weight of the situations they find themselves in. “You see this process most clearly during free throws, where everyone has their own custom behaviors,” Worthy said. “For players in the spotlight, having a defined routine they can just step into during the biggest moments really helps to ground them.”
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If possible, fly under the radar.
During the Western Conference Finals, ESPN’s Lisa Salters conceded, “This is really the first time I’ve had a chance to watch (Jokic) play, and I’ve got to admit, I’ve been sleeping on this guy.” Arguably, the broader media establishment has been sleeping on the whole team. That’s partially because quiet competence doesn’t generate headlines. Denver doesn’t have toxic stars or newsworthy rivalries, just a close-knit team that keeps grinding out victories.
“It’s always motivationally helpful for a team to foment an ‘us against the world’ mindset,” Worthy said, “and they could justifiably do that this season.” Few observers expected them to win their conference semifinal series against Phoenix, Worthy pointed out, while their four-game sweep of the Lakers was spectacular. “When nobody expects you to win,” he said, “and there are no headlines, rumors or press hounding you, it’s often easier to just get on with the task at hand.”
Final question: Are the Nuggets going to win?
“I was certainly not a die-hard Nuggets person earlier this season — I didn’t believe they had the fire power,” Worthy said. “But having seen the last three series, I think yes, they will win.”