DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray continue to turn in jaw-dropping performances during these playoffs, raising expectations along the way.
They took Round 1 of their Western Conference Finals showdown against LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a game in which Jockic was dazzled by the fortitude of of his Denver Nuggets teammate, who played through a painful ear infection.
“Of course maybe he’s just faking it,” the Nuggets big man interjected after the Nuggets staved off the Los Angeles Lakers 132-126. “He didn’t want to practice.”
A little comedy to go with their chemistry.
Opponents have found nothing funny about the Murray-Jokic combo in the playoffs. They are playing their best basketball since the 2020 NBA bubble. Seven months after that run, Murray tore his left ACL and had to sit out the last two postseasons.
Now, Murray and Jokic are back to showcasing a brand of two-player hoops reminiscent of the John Stockton-Karl Malone era in Utah. But they seek what eluded Stockton and Malone.
They’re chasing a championship ring to cement their place in NBA lore alongside Scottie Pippen & Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant & Shaquille O’Neal and, yes, LeBron & AD, who combined for 66 points in Game 1 Tuesday night.
The Nuggets are one of six teams never to reach the NBA Finals and they’re 0-7 against the Lakers in playoff series. Behind Murray and Jokic, they feel they finally have the championship chops to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Mile High City.
“It seems like for years now, we’re some dusty old cowtown in the Rocky Mountains, with so little respect that we get,” said coach Michael Malone, whose team will try to improve to 8-0 at home in the playoffs Thursday night. “You can sit there, you can fight it and complain about it. Or you can just embrace who we are and what we have.”
That disrespect didn’t wane even with the Nuggets earning the top seed for the first time as commentators alternately anointed everyone but Denver as the favorite to win the West.
For all those who tuned in Tuesday and really watched Jokic and Murray for the first time they saw what players and coaches around the league say: That was no fluke, they’re just about always that good.
“I’d rather not waste time with the pundits that count us out and don’t give us the respect we deserve as a team, with everything we’ve done,” Malone said. “But there’s one thing we haven’t done. And until we win a championship, people are going to keep saying that about us. So that’s what drives us.”
Denver may have already won a championship by now were it not for Murray’s devastating knee injury at Golden State on April 12, 2021.
He could only watch as the Nuggets were routed by Phoenix in the second round of the playoffs that year and again by the Warriors in the first round last year when their other max player, Michael Porter Jr., also was sidelined.
But this could be their best opportunity to date.
With Murray back healthy and Jokic a matchup nightmare for anyone, they’re rolling along, winning nine of 12 playoff games so far.
“They’re a dynamic duo, great symmetry, know each other well,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Great rhythm, regardless of who’s initiating, who’s screening. … We have to be ready to really defend that at a high level.”
That’s a difficult ask.
“We just have to make it tough for him, switching up matchups and schemes on him,” Davis said of Jokic.
Murray was questionable for Game 1 due to an ear infection that made for a miserable weekend. But there he was at his best, knocking down a dozen shots, including four 3-pointers and dishing out five assists.
“The whole playoffs, I think he’s playing amazing,” Jokic said. “We all know what he brings, the toughness.”
Jokic, too, filled up the stat sheet. He finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, giving him 12 career playoff triple-doubles, most by a center in NBA history.
The Nuggets will need more performances like this to fend off the Lakers, who beat them in the Western Conference Finals in 1985, 2009 and 2020.
Denver has more firepower this time around, too, with a solid supporting cast. It also includes Porter, Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown, rookie Christian Braun, Jeff Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who brings a championship pedigree to a roster known mostly for its two-time MVP.
All of that was on display in the Nuggets’ series clincher against Phoenix in Round 2 when Denver bounced the Suns with a 25-point blowout.
“We looked like a championship team,” Jokic said afterward. “We were so focused. … Well, I guess I don’t know how a championship team looks. But I think that was how it’s supposed to look.”
That view will become clearer if Jokic and Murray can keep playing like this.
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