Nuggets reminding rest of NBA they are still the best, until proven otherwise

LOS ANGELES — Nikola Jokić bobbed his head to Serbian hip hop at his locker-room stall on Saturday night, a slight smile on his face. He eventually pressed pause and discussed a number of topics with the media. The entire time, the sly grin never left his face.

On a night when the Denver Nuggets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 124-114 before a nationally televised audience, Jokić showed yet again that his basketball prowess currently has no peer. He finished with 35 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as Denver won for a sixth consecutive game, matching its season high. Jokić and co-star Jamal Murray dominated the last five minutes, sending yet another message to the league. In a regular season that has more parity than last year, in a season that’s seen plenty of great and competitive basketball, the Nuggets are the proverbial cream rising to the top. They are still the champs. They are still the best, until proven otherwise. They are playing energetic and focused. They are playing basketball with a purpose.

The Nuggets have come out of the All-Star break flying. They are defending at a high level. Jokić and Murray are locked in. The veteran role players are playing their roles well. And now, they are a half game out of the top seed in the Western Conference, and trending up.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “We know that we have to play well, especially at this time of the year. We lost three in a row going into the break, and I’m just impressed at our mindset coming into the second half of the season. We got up for Washington. We got up for Portland and Golden State and so on. We’re playing the right way this time of year, and our guys are locked in, regardless of the opponent. We know that we have to find our rhythm, and if the last six games are any indication, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

The Nuggets know this is the time to turn on the regular season afterburner, particularly with the playoffs looming. They are a slightly different team than last season’s roster that won the title, especially with no Bruce Brown and no Jeff Green. But, on the whole, they are just as good, mainly because of the development of young forwards Peyton Watson and Christian Braun, who have been able to supplement the core of the starting five nicely.

Where things are different for the Nuggets this season is the landscape around them. The Western Conference, last season, was wrapped up by March, and Denver essentially cruised to the regular season finish line, had fresh legs for the playoffs and steamrolled to a championship. The Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t imposing last season. They are this year. Oklahoma City was still a team growing into its promise last season. This year, they’ve reached that promise many had been projecting them to reach and are imposing it on their opposition. The LA Clippers battled injury last season and didn’t have a roster that included James Harden. They could head into the playoffs relatively healthy and star-studded.

Denver’s had to deal with the changes around it, battling carry-over fatigue from last year’s title run, while dealing with differing injuries to Murray. But what these past six games have shown is that the Nuggets have a gear that certainly nobody in the Western Conference appears capable of hitting. It’s the gear of a stingy defense that knows exactly how to get stops, coupled with an offense that not many teams can generate stops against.

In essence, this is what separated Denver and the Lakers on Saturday night. The Nuggets knew exactly what they wanted to do, and the Lakers waffled on crucial possessions. No matter who shot the basketball in the final five minutes, the Nuggets started each and every possession with the ball in the hands of either Jokić or Murray. The Lakers, on multiple possessions, put the ball in the hands of Austin Reaves.

The subtle things that win games, Denver does all of it. And there is a championship swagger about the Nuggets very reminiscent of the peak San Antonio Spurs years of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Like those Spurs, these Nuggets make you play 48 minutes of terrific and disciplined basketball, if you want to beat them. These Nuggets don’t let you off the hook with turnovers, bad shots or bad offensive sets. It’s why their crunchtime offense is the best in the league.

Against the Lakers, Denver scored on its final eight possessions, baskets that carried enough weight to eventually make Los Angeles crumble on a night when LeBron James became the first player in NBA history to eclipse 40,000 points. Against the Lakers, the Nuggets made eight of their final nine shots from the field in the final five minutes and did so without committing a turnover. For sure, defense is a big part of any equation. But when a team is as efficient offensively as the Nuggets, that puts immense pressure on teams to answer. And eventually, like the Lakers on Saturday night, most teams eventually run out of offensive answers.

“I think we trust our offense in important moments,” Murray said. “But I also think when you can get stops and then go down and score, that is a really important component to have. It helps that we really know what we want to do.”

Before the season started, Murray told The Athletic that he knew a difficult season was coming, in terms of being the hunted team, rather than being the hunter. But he also said that the hope was for the Nuggets to be rounding into peak form around March.

He’s proven almost prophetic. The Nuggets have had their difficulties in spots. They have had to deal with adversity. And they’ve without question had a rougher time with the regular season than they did last year.

But if a six-game win streak proves nothing else, it is that Denver is locked in when it needs to be. The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics loom this week for the Nuggets and will provide different styles to test themselves against. Denver knows it’s that time of year. And the rest of the NBA knows it is going to be difficult to beat the Nuggets four times when it truly matters.

(Photo: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)


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