LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone had the same answer to the same question.
What did Nuggets two-time MVP Nikola Jokic prove in the Western Conference finals?
“For me, he hasn’t proven anything,” Malone said. “And why do I say that? Because I already know he’s a great player.”
James echoed Malone.
“I know how great Jokic is,” James said. “There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way, a certain way that I like to play the game as well, and he’s one of them where you are always off balance when you are guarding a player like that because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen. There’s not many guys in our league like that.
“So you already knew you was going against a beast once the series started, and not only just about his game. Everybody gets cracked up into his stats but I don’t think a lot of people talk about, like, this part of his game [indicating cerebral]. Maybe it’s not talked about it because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”
Jokic recorded his third triple-double of the series in Denver’s 113-111 victory against the Lakers in Game 4 Monday, sending the Nuggets to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
“To beat this team in the Western Conference Finals and to get the first sweep in franchise history, to get the first Western Conference championship in franchise history, it means a lot,” Malone said.
“But I speak for 17 players in that locker room and the entire organization: We are not satisfied. We’re going to enjoy it for a moment, and I think it’s going to be a hell of a plane ride home. But we have a lot of work to do.”
Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and three blocks and was named MVP of the West finals after averaging a triple-double for the series.
“He’s showing other people nationally that he’s real,” Malone said. “Like what he’s doing is real. The MVPs are real. The triple-doubles are real.”
Right now, the Nuggets have the best player in the playoffs and the best team in the playoffs.
“Me and AD (Anthony Davis) were just talking in the locker room for a little bit,” James said. “We came to the consensus, this is if not, one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together for all four years. Just well orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have shooting. They have playmaking. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth.”
All those attributes James mentioned will make the Nuggets favorites to win their first championship against either Miami or Boston.
Jamal Murray scored 25 points after back-to-back 37-point performances in Game 2 and Game 3. Michael Porter Jr. had 15 points and 10 rebounds and Aaron Gordon contributed 22 points, six rebounds and five assists.
For three seasons, the Nuggets have been building toward this moment since they lost to the Lakers in the conference finals in the 2020 bubble. Their path to this point was interrupted by injuries to Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Murray missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee.
“I remember being on the bus with him, going to the airport after he did the injury in Golden State the next day and he had tears in his eyes,” Malone recalled. “His first thought was, ‘Man, are you guys going to trade me?’ I am damaged goods. Are you going to trade me now?’ I hugged him, I said ‘Hell no, you’re ours. We love you. We’re going to help you get back, and you’re going to be a better player for it.’ ”
From mid-December through the end of the regular season, the Nuggets were in first place in the West. But they still didn’t get the respect a No. 1 seed usually does. Part of it is the market, and people don’t see the Nuggets play as often as they see other teams.
They added Gordon at the 2020-2021 trade deadline and signed Bruce Brown in free agency and acquired Kentavious Caldwell-Pope via trade in July.
It’s all coming together for the Nuggets at the right time.
Denver entered the playoffs as underrated and underappreciated, and to some degree, that rankled Malone. Even after the Nuggets took a 2-0 series lead, he bickered about the attention the Lakers received.
“You win Game 1, and all everybody talked about was the Lakers,” he said. “Let’s be honest, the national narrative was ‘Hey, the Lakers are fine. They’re down 1-0, but they figured something out. No one talked about Nikola just had a historic performance.’ ”
That no-one-respects-us attitude worked for the Nuggets.
But it’s no longer true. The Nuggets have respect, and they’re not underrated or underappreciated anymore. Even if Malone and James knew it all along.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets underrated no more. They’re NBA title favorites
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