Resilient Nuggets keep defying odds behind Nikola Jokic’s brilliance, unlikely but empowered supporting cast

Disappointment. Devastation. Probably a few tears. When Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL in mid-April, it was a gut-punch for so many reasons. Not only is Murray one of the most exciting young guards in the NBA — particularly in a playoff setting — but the Denver Nuggets were looking every bit of a true championship contender after the acquisition of Aaron Gordon shortly before the trade deadline.

With Murray out, however, those title chances plummeted to zilch. Nada. Bubkes.

Apparently, that message is taking a while to reach the Mile High City.

Thursday night’s 126-115 Game 6 road win over the Portland Trail Blazers sent the Nuggets to the second round for the third consecutive year. They won the series not only without Murray — who averaged 26.5 points, including two 50-point games, on 45 percent 3-point shooting last postseason in the bubble — but also without Will Barton and PJ Dozier, leaving Denver’s guard rotation in shambles.

Enter Austin Rivers, who sat patiently by his phone for six weeks earlier this season after being waived by the Oklahoma City Thunder before a desperate Denver front office came calling. Enter Facundo Campazzo, a “5-foot-10,” 30-year-old Argentinian rookie who might still be attached to Damian Lillard’s hip at the time of this writing. Enter Monte Morris, a former second-round pick and an overqualified backup who averaged more than 15 points and nearly six assists on 42 percent 3-point shooting in the opening-round series win over the Blazers.

And, of course, they’re anchored by the most unlikely of stars: A plodding yet graceful 7-footer who can’t jump, possessing one of the most unique skill sets we’ve ever seen on a basketball court. Yes, the MVP is a regular season award, but Nikola Jokic just showed a national audience why he’s likely going to win the honor in a few months. Jokic averaged 33 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists against the Blazers on laughable 53/43/92 shooting splits. 

“You can take anybody away from our team, but if we have Nikola, you can put me, Wes Unseld, Ryan Bowen, Charles Klask and we’re going to find a way to compete because that’s how great he is,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the Game 6 win, invoking the names of three of his assistant coaches. “That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration.”

Maybe not by much.

Defying the odds is nothing new for Malone, Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Last year in the bubble, they famously became the first team in NBA history to come back from two 3-1 deficits in the same postseason — and they did it in consecutive rounds, no less. Following Murray’s season-ending injury on April 12, the very moment most eradicated them from the championship conversation, the Nuggets had the league’s second-best record at 13-5. In their first-round win over the Blazers, the Nuggets had a plus-40 (!) net rating in 15 clutch minutes (within five points with five minutes remaining), including an 18-7 run to close out the deciding Game 6.

“Nobody can take the fight out of us,” Jokic said after the win. “We can just go out there and fight, and that’s what we’re doing. … We’re just gonna go out there and fight every game.”

Jokic also said that the Nuggets have been playing “team basketball,” and nothing epitomized that more than what took place on Thursday night. Michael Porter Jr. had the best quarter of his NBA career (maybe his life) with 22 points on 6-for-7 3-point shooting to open Game 6. He understandably cooled down as the game progressed, and Malone left Porter on the bench for the final six minutes of the game in favor of veteran reserve JaMychal Green, who grabbed two huge offensive rebounds with a minute remaining to help seal the game for Denver.

“JaMychal, the way he brought us home, getting those rebounds, being aggressive,” Porter said after the game. “Like I told coach — I think I came out with five or six minutes left and I saw what he was doing out there and I was like, ‘Man, let him rock.’ Just because I saw how hard he was playing and what he was doing. So I’m super happy for him and the game he had. And I’m just really happy for the whole team.”

This is the same Porter who, just nine months ago in the bubble, publicly criticized Malone for not calling enough plays for him after a Game 4 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The fact that he’s now imploring his coach to leave him on the bench for the good of the team speaks volumes to not only his personal growth but also the attitude and selflessness engrained in this Nuggets team.

Denver will move on to face the Phoenix Suns, who just pulled off an underdog performance of their own by sending home the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Even with Chris Paul at less than 100 percent, the Suns will likely be the favorite in the series. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last two years, it’s to never count out the Denver Nuggets.

“Our goal is much bigger,” Malone told his team after advancing to the second round. “We’re gonna get healthier. We’re gonna get better. … It doesn’t matter who’s next. It’s all about us. All about us.”

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