EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — When the Denver Nuggets faced the most crucial stretch of the biggest road game in franchise history, Nikola Jokic took over both on the floor and in the huddle.
The two-time MVP decided he would run a two-man, pick-and-roll offense with Jamal Murray late in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday night, and Jokic came through with a 15-point fourth quarter. He also commanded his teammates to buckle down on defense against the Lakers, and the Nuggets responded by taking over the game on both ends.
“Coach Jokic did a great job tonight,” Denver coach Michael Malone said with a smile.
“I don’t want to be a coach,” he said. “I think that’s the worst job on the planet, for sure.”
Jokic had simply done what was necessary — and that’s the story of Denver’s entire season.
Whenever a challenge arises, whether it’s in the doldrums of a dominant regular season or in tough playoff matchups with the star-studded Suns and Lakers, Jokic and the Nuggets figure out a path around it, over it or through it to keep moving toward their goal.
That goal now is only five wins away, as Murray repeatedly pointed out after the Nuggets’ 119-108 victory in Game 3. With one more win over LeBron James and the reeling Lakers on Monday night, Denver can secure its first trip to the NBA Finals in the franchise’s 47 years in the league.
“We know next game is going to be another test,” Murray said. “They’re going to come out more aggressive. (Anthony Davis) is going to be more aggressive. LeBron is going to be more aggressive, so the crowd is going to be more into it.”
The Nuggets also can make another bit of history with a win in Game 4: Although this franchise has won 15 playoff series, Denver has never swept an opponent.
It’s clear that this current version of the Nuggets is the best team in franchise history precisely because these players care only about team success. Denver has won five straight games while going 11-3 in the postseason, leaving no doubt about the identity of the NBA Finals favorite and the best team in a competitive conference.
While Jokic and Murray are stars, their supporting cast is the vital difference between the Nuggets and the NBA’s other star-based teams. Personal stats, playing time and egos simply don’t seem to matter to this group, according to its coaches and players.
“I mean, I never doubted my team,” Jokic said. “We have some really good players that can step up in the right moment, and that’s what we did.”
Just don’t tell the Nuggets they’re the clear favorites to win it all: They still seem to be fueled by an underlying anger and an inferiority complex about their collective success, even after winning three Northwest Division titles and six playoff series (and counting) during five straight postseason appearances. Denver is the top seed in the West, yet seems to believe its success is a triumph over innumerable naysayers and stark odds.
“We’re the underdogs,” Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope claimed. “We don’t get enough credit for what we do.”
That passion sometimes comes out in surprising ways, even during this dominant playoff series. Malone, who complained in Denver about his perception of national media narratives, took time out from praising his team after Game 3 to take a shot at Davis and the NBA officials, claiming the Lakers big man constantly violates defensive rules by “playing free safety, sitting in the paint for eight seconds at a time.”
Lakers coach Darvin Ham declined to counter Malone’s criticism of Davis’ defense Sunday, saying only: “I have a ton of respect for Mike, and his thoughts are his thoughts. His words are his words.”
Instead, Ham got back to work after two hours of sleep focused on the first step in Los Angeles’ formidable task. Los Angeles had a lengthy film session to address the mistakes that have kept the Nuggets in control of the series.
“We’ve got an opportunity, man,” Ham said. “Everybody is counting us out. It’s crazy. It’s no different than what we’ve been through all year. It’s the uphill battle, and trying to solidify ourselves and re-establish what this culture is all about with the Laker organization. I think we’ve done that, and we’ve got an opportunity to take another step in the right direction come tomorrow.”
The Lakers are on the ropes after their first three consecutive losses since early February, and perhaps the only element of encouragement is the fact that all three games were close late. Los Angeles had golden opportunities to win twice in Denver, and the Lakers rallied from 14 points down to take the lead early in the fourth quarter of Game 3 before Jokic ran over them.
The Lakers’ first home loss in nearly two months has left them requiring an unprecedented comeback to keep their season alive: All 149 teams that previously fell into an 0-3 hole in the NBA playoffs lost the series.
“It ain’t over until it’s four games, and that’s the best part about it,” Lonnie Walker said. “Kings don’t look down when they’ve got crowns on their head. You don’t want that to fall. We’re not over with. We’re a whole bunch of kings over here. We’re ready to eat. We’re starving.”