PHOENIX — Many nights and many wins, there's an unmatched subtlety to nikola Jokic's brilliance on the basketball court. He is no hunter, rarely chasing prey and hunting matches for punishment in the paint. It's rare enough how a 6-foot-11, 280-pound force can camouflage his game to whatever happens before his scanning eyes, assessing defenses as it rotates and switches. Does it, grabs the ball a second time, knows the right passing lanes often open up as a result of pure patience. Blink, and you might remember how he manipulated that very possession. And by the time the scoreboard shows only zero on the clock, Jokic has quietly accumulated another triple-double as he continues to climb the NBA's record books.
“The defense tells you what to do,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone. “Nicola never forces anything. He's a guy who will really read the game and offer the game.
There are other nights and other wins where Jokic has clearly bent proceedings to his creative will, where the defense asks him to move forward and dominate. That's why he doesn't do much in the eyes of Denver's Hurricanes attack, but Jokic is a Hurricane in his own right. He becomes a giant at the rim, grabs rebounds and clears positions against an interior defender who is in trouble the moment Jokic touches the ball, soon with his fakes and pivots and spins. becomes paralyzed. Jokic scored 20 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists before halftime on Thursday night, building a 30-point halftime margin over the Phoenix Suns, leading Denver to a 125–100 series-winning win to advance in the Western Conference. cruised to victory. Final for the first time since 2020
“I think sometimes we probably take Nikola Jokic lightly,” Malone said. The two-time MVP would finish Game 6 with 32 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists and 3 steals. “Because what he's doing every night is unbelievable. He makes everyone around him better. Never panics. Cool hands Luke.”
“Jokic is the greatest of all time,” said Kevin Durant. “He's going to go down as one of the greatest centers of all-time to touch a basketball.”
Denver dropped Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix, thanks to downhill attacks from Devin Booker and Durant. And yet the following two contests, Game 5 back at the Ball Arena and this pivotal battle at the Footprint Center, the Nuggets seemed completely unfazed by the competition across the aisle. Denver surrounded Phoenix in such a way that most of the home crowd left the stadium while the Suns still had 8:35 remaining in the season, as Jokic stepped to the foul line to stretch the Nuggets' advantage to 30. Converted a pair of free throws. Number.
Suns head coach Monty Williams said, “It was disappointing to see him score like that.”
The Nuggets have a crystallized eight-man rotation. Denver first found the ideal frontcourt partner for Jokic in Aaron Gordon at the 2021 trade deadline under former team president Tim Connelly. When Calvin Booth became the Nuggets' chief executive after Conley moved to Minnesota last summer, Denver quickly sent reserve guard Monte Morris and veteran scorer Will Barton to Washington in exchange for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a two-way swingman as good as any. Was. Any complementary wing in the league. Bruce Brown was such a great addition in free agency, arriving from Brooklyn for only $7 million this season, the Nuggets dealt promising young point guard Bones Hyland at this year's deadline, partly because of Brown's all-around abilities. Because of Denver's comfort with. -Star caliber guard Jamal Murray. Toss in dependable veteran Jeff Green and bouncy rookie Christian Braun, and it's hard to argue these Nuggets, who cake-walked toward the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, aren't both the deepest and most talented team in the postseason. They are the first club to earn a trip to the conference finals for more than one reason.
“Great continuity. Staying together for what? How many years has Mike Malone been around, six years?” Durant said. In fact, Denver's play-caller, who has led the Nuggets since 2015-16, has been the fourth-longest-tenured head coach in the NBA behind Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr. “It's a nice advantage when your coach knows your players on the team and you have a system in place for that long.”
Jokic's rookie campaign came in the same 2015–16 season. Murray arrived the following year as the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and the pick-and-roll chemistry has been brewing ever since. Murray said, “We know this is one of our advantages.” ,[Jokić] And I, when we're playing, it's just a read. We don't have anything set in stone. It's good to study basketball and just play the game. This may not be one of our nights out, but we're gonna have each other. That's why it's a team sport.”
Meanwhile, the Suns scrambled to acquire Durant a few months back, emptying their war effort trying to capitalize on a championship window that was first sparked before the 2020-21 season by acquiring Chris Paul . This isn't an indictment of Phoenix's approach, which has already made Finals appearances, but it's hard to ignore the differences between these two franchises and their respective team-building strategies. Especially in the league's current landscape, where player trade requests have nearly ended the pursuit of superstars in free agency, and three of the last four head coaches to win NBA titles – Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel and most recently Mike Budenholzer – Everyone is eliminated. The franchise with which they reached the promised land.
Instead Denver has put a stop to the course. Some characters came and went. From players like Gary Harris and Jerami Grant and Malik Beasley to personnel staffers like Connelly and Arturas Karnisova, now the Chicago Bulls' executive vice president. But so many pieces, so many people, have endured, grown and grown together.
Murray said, “This is not a team where you have to force yourself to go.” “You can count on the pass, you can count on the cut, and that's how we've been playing for years.”
Malone said, “No one in the West has won more matches than us in the last five seasons.”
Caldwell-Pope ran back to the visitors' locker room, clapping his hands and smiling from ear to ear. “Eight more, baby!” He was happy. “Eight more. Go on!”
Before the NBA Finals, the Nuggets would either face LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers, advancing to their last trip to the Conference Finals. Or, Denver will have an opportunity to dethrone the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Either way, Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals series begins on Tuesday. Plenty of time for a plethora of doubters to jump on board.