These are not your grandfather’s Nuggets. In a basketball city haunted by the ghosts of nearly 50 years of playoff failure, Nikola Jokic and his teammates refused to run and hide when LeBron James dared them to be spooked by to the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship mystique.
After blowing all but a nervous fraction of a 21-point lead, the Nuggets held off L.A. for a 132-126 victory in the series-opener of the Western Conference Finals at Ball Arena.
“I don’t think there was any panic, there was poise,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Tuesday, when asked how his team survived a furious second-half comeback by the Lakers.
Well, poise and a whole lot of Nikola Jokic.
There’s only one difference between King James and the Joker. According to Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has been a teammate of both superstars. “I feel like the only difference is that Bron can jump higher than Jokic.”
“That’s really offensive,” said Jokic, pausing a beat for comedic effect, before adding:
“I’m joking. To be compared to one of the best ever, that’s really cool.”
On a spring night when the King was brilliant but Joker was better, the best player ever to wear a Nuggets uniform recorded the 12th triple-double of his playoff career for the benefit of the triple dunderheads: Kendrick Perkins, Stephen A. Smith and Mark Jackson of ESPN.
You know them, they’re the haters who not only lobbied for Philadelphia center Joel Embiid to win the most valuable player award, but allowed ESPN to disparage Jokic in the process.
This game turned from a belly laugh to sweaty palms for Nuggets Nation, which has endured so much playoff disappointment dating back to the ABA days that there are fans convinced a championship for this franchise is simply not meant to be.
For the better part of three quarters, if not for the names on the front of the jerseys, I would’ve sworn the two teams on the floor at Ball Arena were the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. The Nuggets were dominant on the boards and quicker in transition, taking a 93-72 lead less than seven minutes after halftime.
The Globetrotter moment was announced by the buzzer ending the third period. With the basketball in the hands of Jokic and nowhere to go with it, he reluctantly took a step-back three-point shot from well beyond the arc, from the area code where Stephen Curry lives.
And that big Joker swished it. Holy. Moly. At that moment, I would’ve given $1,000 for the look on the face of Jackson, whose role as ESPN analyst sitting courtside allowed him to get a first-hand education of what a mistake it was to not include Jokic’s name anywhere among the five slots on his MVP ballot.
But the reaction of Lakers forward Anthony Davis, stuck trying to defend Jokic, was precious.
A.D. turned to Jokic, as if to say: WTF.
Well, that’s fabulous.
Once upon a time, a center for UCLA who grew up to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar caused college basketball to outlaw the dunk. Well, maybe the NBA needs to adopt some new rules for Jokic. Let’s start with: His triple-doubles only count if achieved in three quarters. Fair? On his way to 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, he recorded the 12th triple-double of his playoff career not quite six minutes past halftime.
After studying the videotape of Jokic prior to this series, Lakers coach Darvin Ham noted his L.A. staff devised a unified plan to check the real MVP. “An initial coverage, a counter coverage and an escape plan,” Ham said, before admitting: “I’m pretty sure we’ll get to the escape plan with this guy.”
But James is the King for a reason. It was his stubborn refusal to lose, along with 40 points from teammate Anthony Davis, that allowed the Lakers to put a chill down the spines of Nuggets fans.
There were ghosts in the building. But that’s somebody else’s history, not reason for Jokic and his teammates to panic
“In those moments,” Jokic said, “you cannot think about it. You just play and try to win the game.”
James and Davis literally present a much bigger challenge in this series than the Suns superstar combo of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker did in a best-of-seven series Denver won 4-2.
With 45 seconds remaining in the game, James missed a three-point shot from the top of the key that could’ve tied the game at 129.
“Weather the storm,” said Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, whose 31-point performance was sick, especially when you consider he’s battling an ear infection.
You can exhale now, Nuggets Nation.
“We had talked a lot about how the Lakers had gone into Memphis and they’d gone into Golden State and had won Game 1s, wrestling control of the series right away,” Malone said. “We worked too hard for (homecourt advantage). We didn’t want to give it away.”
Those ghosts of Denver’s past playoff failures? They don’t live here anymore.
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