ORLANDO — In the absence of great expectations in these NBA playoffs, Nikola Jokic and his Denver Nuggets teammates have leaned into the warm embrace of desperation to fuel them.
Facing elimination time after time, five times in this postseason alone, including Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, Jokic and the Nuggets once again found a way to do the seemingly unthinkable.
By the time they’d finished their miraculous comeback from a 19-point third quarter deficit to pull off a shocking 111-98 win, Jokic was searching for the right words to describe what it is that allows the Nuggets to keep defying the odds.
“Maybe this is going to sound weird or funny, but we don’t care. We’re just going to go there and have fun,” Jokic said after leading the comeback and shredding the vaunted Clippers’ defense for 34 points (on 13-for-22 shooing, 4-for-6 from beyond the 3-point line), 14 rebounds and 6 assists. “Coach said in the meeting before ‘don’t forget to have fun’ and in the third and fourth quarters we were having fun. You could see everybody was laughing feeling good because we were playing good, we were playing amazing, so when we play like that the confidence is very high.”
Tuesday’s Game 7 looms historically large for both teams.
The Clippers were supposed to be marching towards a date in the conference finals (for the first time in the 50-year history of the organization) against their Staples Center rival Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, they’ll now have to survive a Nuggets team that is the first in NBA history to play in four straight Game 7s, dating back to last season. The Nuggets have forced a Game 7 twice after being down 3-1 in the same postseason for the first time in playoff history.
They've also tied three other teams by staving off elimination five times in this postseason. The only team to do it more was the 1994 Nuggets, of course, who did it six times.
Jokic pointed to the three previous Game 7s and the roller coaster rides in each of those series, for educating the Nuggets to stay in the moment no matter the circumstance.
“We’ve kind of seen everything,” he said. “The main thing is that we have fun, we’re having fun. The pressure, there is no pressure on any of us.”
With Jokic knocking down one-legged, step-back 3-pointers and Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. all taking and making clutch shots during the comeback, Nuggets coach Mike Malone was searching for the right words to describe his team’s unwavering resilience.
He lauded his team’s defensive effort, which produced 11 straight stops during that second-half run. Seeing the normally stone-faced Jokic fired up and emotional was the surest sign that something special was brewing.
“I love, and my favorite part about Nikola Jokic,” Malone said, “he doesn’t get very excited too often. But when we went on that run and we’re getting stops and they were calling timeout, and we got more stops and they called another timeout. And we’re making the right play and the ball was flying. And I see Nikola emotional and yelling and screaming and pounding his chest, I know we’re in a good place. And I saw that tonight. And that’s always fun to see. We’re embracing this, we’re enjoying the journey. This is a great moment for us but we have a lot of work to do.”
The Nuggets’ work in this series has made them the bubble darlings of the remaining five teams — the Lakers await the winner in the Western Conference finals while the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are set to battle it out in the East. The Nuggets are probably still considered the longest of long shots in this field.
Malone doesn’t care, of course, as long as his guys are convinced they can do it.
“I think what it comes down to is an inner belief, an inner confidence,” Malone said. “We started off training camp back in September in Colorado Springs talking about winning a championship. And we still have those same goals. We never lost sight of that. Four months on the hiatus, coming back into the bubble truing to get healthy … we’ve always felt we were good enough. No one else does, but we don’t care about that. We don’t listen to the noise. We’ve always had this internal belief in ourselves and in our collective group that we’re good enough to win a championship.
“We find it funny that the narrative is that the Nuggets are this cute team, ‘oh what a good story.’ We were second in the West last year. We were one possession away from going to the Western Conference finals. Most of this year we were the No. 2 seed in the West, until after the All-Star break we lost hold of that. So I think it comes down to just a tremendous belief and confidence in who we are, what we’re about and what we’re trying to accomplish. And we have work to do. We’re not satisfied yet.”
Three times in this bubble run the Nuggets put Malone’s words into action. They have found themselves down by 15 or more and each time they rallied for wins.
They were down 15 to the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of their first-round series and went on a 64-36 run to turn that one around. They were down 15 in the second half of Game 5 against the Clippers Friday and used a 65-44 blitz to flip that one.
Sunday’s 62-30 run after trailing by 19 came after Murray was knocked to the floor on an early fourth-quarter drive by Clippers star Paul George.
Malone went off when there was no foul called. But Jokic said he wasn’t worried about Murray, who stayed on the ground for minutes before getting up and walking to the bench with the Clippers up 68-49 with 10:08 to play in the game.
We find it funny that the narrative is that the Nuggets are this cute team, ‘oh what a good story.’ We were second in the West last year. We were one possession away from going to the Western Conference finals.
Jokic said he never had a doubt that Murray would return and close out the game.
“No, I mean, even if he had a broken rib or whatever, he would continue for sure,” Jokic said. “Whatever would happen, he’s not just going to leave the team just like that. Something serious needs to be wrong if he doesn’t finish the game. Like really serious.”
Jokic has been just as indispensable for the Nuggets. He’s dominated the Clippers in this series, averaging 25.8 points (shooting 53 percent from the field, 44.1 percent from beyond the 3-point line), 12 rebounds and 5.5 assists.
His 13 career playoff games with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists ranks as the most by any player in his first two seasons, one better than Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, the only other player to record double-digit games up to that standard.
He was the best player on the floor with Game 6 up for grabs, and that’s with reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and George on the other side.
“I think he was, too,” Murray said when told that Malone suggested Jokic was the best player in the world during that wild comeback. “I don’t see why not. He’s hitting the one-leg step backs, fading away on one leg with a hand in his face, consecutive times, I’d say he’s the best player in the world. And he’s unselfish. He’s passing the ball, he’s finding guys in crunch time and guys are stepping up and making shots. He’s making plays. It was a team effort, but Joker definitely carried us throughout the game and when he’s playing like that, we’re going to be a scary ream for years to come.”
They only have to worry about being that team for one more night to reach the conference finals.
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