Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was right about everything during the Western Conference Finals. His coaching decisions down to his analysis of NBA media, Malone was flawless.
The Nuggets dominated a Lakers team with two hall of famers, and pretty good depth. The narrative surrounding the series and here after remains about LeBron and the Lakers.
I get it at a surface level viewpoint. The Lakers are the most watched NBA team. LeBron the most box office player of all time. The narrative of will LeBron retire and what can the Lakers do this offseason generates intrigue for the average NBA fan.
But that approach is going to be the demise of the NBA.
This idea that the Nuggets are boring is asinine. To say there are no noteworthy narratives to discuss is lazy work by media and fans alike.
The Nuggets are a basketball team. And sometimes basketball media struggles to simply discuss just basketball.
The team just reached its very first NBA Finals. It features and all-time great C in Nikola Jokić, who should be a consecutive 3x MVP winner if the voters didn’t over think things.
James had an all-world performance Monday night…..and Jokić matched it. That, perhaps, is the clearest picture painted in terms of Joker’s greatness in this playoff run.
James turned in an all-timer against the Nuggets. He grabbed the game by the throat. He scored 40. He came an assist short of a triple-double. He completely wrecked Denver’s defense….and yet, Jokic was able to cancel that out.
How many over 20 years has been able to cancel out a classic LeBron game? Jokić just did that.
Nikola Jokić recorded his eighth triple-double of these playoffs for Denver in the closeout win (30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists), passing Wilt Chamberlain for most in a single postseason.
Jokić is undoubtedly the biggest reason the Nuggets will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 1, most likely against the Miami Heat. Maybe all the hurt of the previous 27 unsuccessful postseason runs would have been easier to stomach if fans had known the savior from Serbia would one day be on the way. Jokić was the 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, selected as ESPN aired a Taco Bell commercial, and arrived in the United States one year later to little fanfare. During his first summer league game in 2015, Jokić “was out of shape, 300 pounds,” a rosy evaluation that came from his own coach.
“He’s a nice player,” Michael Malone said of his impression at the time. “No one, and if they tell you any different they’re full of s—, could see that he’d be a two-time MVP, passing Wilt Chamberlain (in the record books) it seems like every other night. It speaks to his dedication to his craft, getting in great shape and understanding that for him to fulfill his potential, he had to work harder.”
As the pounds fell off of Jokić, it became easier to see the vision, even if you still had to squint.
How can someone dominating at levels beyond Wilt not be a fascinating topic?
Want a comeback story?
There’s Murray, who averaged a ridiculous 32.5 points in the series against the Lakers while shooting 52.7 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from 3-point range and 95 percent from the line. He blew up the notion that “Bubble Murray,” an alter-ego label bestowed upon after his breakthrough performance during the DisneyWorld playoffs in 2020, was anything other than his first step toward consistent playoff greatness. Two consecutive playoff trips for Murray were erased after he suffered a torn ACL in April of 2021. He initially feared he would be traded, that his damaged body would no longer fit the team’s timeline. After Malone squashed that fear during a bus ride to the airport, the enormity of the journey ahead sunk in. It was dark and daunting. The only light came in the form of visions Murray had about moments like Monday night.
“I’m so happy for Jamal,” Jokić said. “He’s proving his worth and that he’s a special player in this league.
It took years for Murray to reach that initial bubble peak just for it to crumble with the ACL injury.
Today he is back on top of Mt. Everest.
There’s Michael Porter Jr., the 24-year-old forward who had already undergone two back surgeries by the time he played his first game with the Nuggets. A third surgery came last season and kept Porter out for the playoffs and raised doubts about whether he would be able to hold up during a championship run. Porter had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the Game 4 win.
Then there’s Malone, who is the culture builder in Denver.
Getting back to the playoffs was the start, but Malone’s fiery persona resonated, too. In late 2018, the surging Nuggets hosted James in the Lakers, and hordes of purple-and-gold fans invaded Ball Arena. Many of them headed for the exits early in a resounding 32-point win for Denver. And they left with a parting message from Malone.
“As long as their fans go home disappointed that’s all I care about,” he said that night. “So the Warriors fans can come in here, the Celtics fans can come in here, the Lakers fans can come in here, but take that L on the way out.”
We haven’t even touched on the depth of the Nuggets, or their beautiful brand of basketball they play. Every night a different role player becomes the 3rd option. KCP hit dagger after dagger to stop all threats of a Lakers comeback in game 3. Aaron Gordon late in to his career redefining himself as a once upon a time a one tick pony, to a versatile defender and scorer.
The 5-1 inverted pick and roll run by Jokic and Murray might be the most unstoppable 2 man game the sport has seen since Nash-Amare.
And lets not act as if they play a bland brand of basketball. Jokic routinely drops no look cross court passes. Murray combines his step back 3 with his acrobatic finishes at the rim on consecutive possessions.
The Nuggets are a fun watch that has storylines to grasp on to. It is new blood and for a league dominated by LeBron and Curry for a decade, its easy to see this new as bland. Were not invested in these characters of Jokic and Murray. But by the end of the Finals, Jokic and company should be household names.