PORTLAND • This is something you don’t see every day.
To throw an exclamation point on an old-school three-point play, Nuggets star Nikola Jokic flexed his upper body and shouted, “Let’s go!” Or something along those lines, and probably in Serbian.
In any language, the point was taken. And after the Nuggets lost to the Blazers 140-137 in a four- OT classic in Game 3 of a Western Conference semifinal that’s more growing heated by the day, the Nuggets are heeding his advice.
The Blazers and Nuggets were tied at one apiece in the series, but it’s Denver that has the best player in the series. Joker was spectacular once again. With 30 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in regulation, the 24-year-old prodigy added a chapter to his own growing legend.
Below the retired jersey of Blazers great Bill Walton, with whom Joker’s game has been compared, Jokic showed the Blazers who’s boss: him. The marquee on this series had Damian Lillard and Jokic in bright lights at the top. But Jokic is showing he’s truly one of a kind.
He got some help from good buddy Jamal Murray.
With 2:50 left in regulation, Murray splashed a step-back jumper that gave the Nuggets a 97-95 lead and silenced the Moda Center on Friday. Murray had 27 points at the end of regulation.
“I love the resolve,” coach Michael Malone said. “I love the resiliency our guys have. And most importantly I love the vibe of our team. There’s no panic. There’s no ‘everybody’s down.’ We have a very upbeat group, a very positive group, a very connected group, which I think is helping all of our guys.”
Now the Nuggets should consult Murray on his meditation techniques. Or try hypnosis. Or survey assistant Mark Price, the free throws legend, for shooting tips. Somehow the Nuggets are three wins from the conference finals while shooting as if they don’t like buckets.
It wasn’t as bad as Game 2, when the Nuggets missed 23 of 29 shots from 3-point land, but you could see Game 2 from here. The Nuggets opened the first half missing 11 of 16 3s. Oof.
It would behoove Malone and the Nuggets to revisit the Will Barton experiment. Yes, Barton is loved in the locker room. Yes, he’s been at the center of almost every big comeback. But the veteran swingman has found himself in a bad place in the postseason, rendering Barton almost unplayable. It’s too bad for a proud veteran. But it’s Malik Beasley who deserves those minutes.
And this is new territory for this group of Nuggets. The best team in the NBA on the second night of back-to-backs, the Nuggets racked up a 12-1 record in those games. They know when to say when. But Games 2 and 3 could be the first time in their first postseason these Nuggets have suffered back-to-back losses. Remember the 2008-09 Nuggets who stormed through the West until running into the Lakers? Back-to-back losses to Kobe Bryant’s crew ended their run.
Credit Murray for hobbling through a sore leg to give it his best shot. But the shooting star is playing at less than 100 percent after Spurs center Jakob Poeltl stuck him with a boney knee.
“Everybody’s a little banged up,” Malone said. “How do you get through it? How mentally tough are you? How physically tough are you?”
Tune in to Sunday’s Game 4 to find out.
But the Joker has made it clear who’s the best player in this playoff series. It’s him.