DENVER • Count Alex English among the believers in this era of Nuggets action ball.
Let’s throw a bullet next to his proclamation, since this is Alex English we’re talking about.
“I personally feel like they’ll be in the Western Conference Finals if they continue to play like this,” the Nuggets G.O.A.T. said Sunday night as another sellout crowd packed into Pepsi Center.
What’s going to be more crowded than the Nuggets’ bandwagon? Light Rail’s “E” Line on Tuesday. The Nuggets (29-14) and Warriors (28-14) carry the top records in the West into a game sure to say more about the up-and-coming Nuggets than the three-time world champs.
What Steph Curry did for the crazy shot attempt, Nikola Jokic is doing for the crazy pass attempt. After Jokic erupted for 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in Sunday’s 116-113 win against the Blazers, it seemed like anything is possible with the 7-foot unicorn from Serbia.
I mean, come on. Have you ever seen a pair of 7-footers run a pick 'n roll like Jokic and Mason Plumlee did? English said he couldn’t remember a center who runs the show quite like Jokic. English remains the best to play here. Jokic will be.
But these Nuggets are off to a start that trumps any of English’s spectacular teams for reasons that go much deeper. Chalk it up as cheesy, but the Nuggets genuinely like each other. They play with a togetherness that’s refreshing in every way. Theirs is a family environment that was fostered from the top on down and includes almost everyone in the organization.
It’s pretty sweet the Nuggets improved to 6-0 in the Northwest Division. No one’s more aware of tiebreakers than a team that missed the playoffs by a single game last season. But how’d they get here?
Don’t overlook the impact of coach Michael Malone traveling across the world to Serbia — twice — to visit Jokic, his family and learn the budding superstar’s background. Don’t underestimate the influence of Malone flying to Spain to hang out with Juancho Hernangomez, or president of basketball operations Tim Connelly zipping over to Washington D.C. to be there in person for the G League debut of second-round pick Thomas Welsh.
Guess where Connelly was when free agency opened last summer at midnight? In Baltimore, to personally meet with Will Barton.
“We signed our own guys,” Malone said. “We wanted to bring our own guys back.”
And don’t look past how Malone has handled the second-youngest roster in the NBA. Saturday night, the Nuggets suffered their worst loss of the season, at Phoenix. Instead of ripping into the fellas, Malone walked back-and-forth between each locker and picked his guys up.
“I don’t think teams like coming in here and playing us,” Plumlee said after the Nuggets jumped to 18-3 at home.
Let’s be real. Nobody’s going to out-talent the Warriors, who show three future Hall of Famers and Draymond Green. If the Nuggets are going to have a shot at breaking up the odds-on favorites to win another championship, they must counter with and perfect the kind of team basketball that was on display Sunday night.
“The best thing about it is it’s not just the guys on the court. It’s the guys on the bench. It’s the guys that are still in suits because they’re injured. Everybody’s all in,” Malone said. “We talk about being selfless and always thinking ‘we’ and not ‘me.’ Our guys live it. A lot of teams talk about that stuff, and they’re hollow words. But we have a very connected group.
“People will say we’re connected because we’re winning. I think we’re winning because we’re connected.”
Sure, it’s just one of 82 games. But everyone who’s followed hoops since Curry, Green and Klay Thompson broke onto the scene — in a playoff series against the Nuggets, no less — knows that Golden State is the standard by which all dreamers are measured.
As he addressed media after another spectacular performance, Jokic stood in front of a ribbon he won while trotting his horse in Serbia. This is not your average NBA star. As long as Jokic doesn’t skip town to join the trotting circuit, the Nuggets can beat anyone.
And as the Nuggets mature into a real, live championship contender, the kind of matchups they prefer come into focus. If James Harden and the Rockets are cruising down the sidewalk, the Nuggets should hop to the other side of the road. Avoid those three-point mercenaries at all costs.
But the Nuggets play the Warriors pretty well. It’s relative, of course, since a 5-7 head-to-head record against the Warriors in the Jokic era isn’t something you’re going to brag about. Still.
“They’ve got a good vibe going,” said English, who holds franchise records in scoring, assists and games played. “And you don’t do as well as they’re doing if you don’t have a good coach that is a part of the team itself.”
Jokic is even better than you’ve heard. So are these Nuggets. When Alex English predicts a trip to the conference finals, it’s worth believing in.