Not many people gave the Denver Nuggets much of a chance at upsetting the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. The Sonics had just posted a franchise-record 63 victories, while the Nuggets had slipped into the playoffs with a ho-hum 42-40 record. Besides, no No. 8 seed had ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the NBA adopted its current playoff format in 1984.
When the Sonics handily won the first two games in Seattle, a sweep seemed a foregone conclusion. Dan Issel, the Hall of Fame center who was coaching the Nuggets, made the most of the situation. He told his players they had nothing to lose as the series shifted to Denver. "To be honest, we just wanted to get some playoff experience this year," he told the media, further easing the burden on his team.
It turned out to be quite an experience. The loose and lively Nuggets pounded the Sonics 110-93 in Game 3, then pulled out a 94-85 overtime win in Game 4. Suddenly the series was tied and going back to Seattle, where the Sonics won 39 of 43 outings in the 1993-94 regular season and playoffs. But that statistic was irrelevant when compared to the attitudes of the two teams going into the showdown.
"I can't deny the butterflies felt like rocks," said Sonics coach George Karl. Issel, meanwhile, looked at his team and suggested, "I don't think our kids knew they were supposed to be nervous."
Denver center Dikembe Mutombo put it this way: "I don't like to be rude, but these are the playoffs. Nobody invites you into their house. You just have to go in and get comfortable."
Not even Seattle's tenacious full-court press could rattle the Nuggets, who played like battle-tested veterans and committed just 11 turnovers. On offense they slowed the pace of the game and worked the ball into their big men, Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis and Brian Williams. On defense they focused on stopping Seattle's stars. Gary Payton was ineffective after an early foot injury while Shawn Kemp could manage only 19 points, including just six in the second half.
Mutombo dominated the lane defensively, reserve guard Robert Pack scored 10 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, Ellis tallied 19 and Williams posted 17 points and 19 rebounds. Seattle's Kendall Gill forced overtime with a last-second layup at the end of regulation, but he only postponed the unthinkable. Denver edged Seattle 98-94 in overtime. When the final buzzer sounded, Mutombo grabbed the last rebound and fell to the floor, a look of sheer joy on his face as his teammates piled upon him in celebration.
No. 8 had beaten No. 1. Though the Nuggets would lose to Utah in seven games in the next round, they had carved their place in history.