PORTLAND — The Nikola Jokic comedy hour is a family matter — spoken in Serbian, so we truly don’t understand.
But it must be said this Nuggets playoff run was not built on a foundation of fun and games.
Just 30 minutes after Joker’s Nuggets finished off the Blazers 116-112 in the biggest franchise win in a decade, the real fun began. The two mountains he calls brothers — Strahinja and Nemanja — watched baby bro get kneed during another classic game in this Western Conference semifinal. So how did they coddle their brother?
They pinched him, hard, until he yelled, “Stop!”
The 20,146 Blazers fans slammed inside Moda Center booed Jokic from tipoff to the final horn.
“I didn’t pay that much attention,” he said.
Maybe there’s a parenting, or sibling, lesson hidden away in a series that’s now tied up at two wins apiece while veering toward Colorado for Game 5 on Tuesday. Just as Joker’s brothers celebrated by making him hurt, Jamal Murray recalled his father making him shoot free throws while blindfolded. Shoot, the NBA playoffs are a breeze compared to their challenges at home.
Here, let’s let Portland in on a little secret: these Nuggets are a better team with the odds stacked against them. They were 12-1 on the second night of back-to-backs, the third-best mark in league history. Murray's focus goes laser when he's hurt. Joker's fourth triple-double of the postseason — only Wilt Chamberlain has more — arrived in an arena that hated his guts.
The Nuggets might bend, as they did in facing 2-1 series deficits against the Spurs and Blazers. But they don’t break. And Sunday in front of a juiced crowd felt like Denver vs. the World.
“If you’re a Denver Nugget fan, how excited about this team are you now? But more important how excited are you about our future?” Michael Malone said afterward. “We have a chance to be a really good team for many, many years.”
“I think we don’t want to lose more than we like to win,” Jokic added, “Which is weird.”
The Nuggets are weird. But they’re damn good, too. They are better than the Blazers, in fact, and the series took a turn for the just when Denver closed out Game 4 like it’s a veteran team that's been here before or something.
In crunch time, waving his octopus arms around like magic wands, Jokic recorded assists on four straight possessions. He's the puppeteer here. And none were sweeter than his bullets to Will Barton, perhaps the Joker’s favorite teammate.
One is from Baltimore. One is from Sombor. If this odd couple can connect like two old friends who grew up together, why can’t the rest of us?
My email inbox has been a steady stream of Barton hate: Get him outta there! Hey, I'm drowning in the same boat. Barton will take your apologies at the corner of I Told You So and How You Like Me Now. But as a wise college coach once told me, you always want a Baltimore guy on your team. Their swag never fades.
“Going down 3-1 never hit my mind,” said Barton, who had 33 points over Games 3 and 4, after being relegated to the bench. “I knew going to the arena we were going to win tonight.”
The Nuggets got their swag back. It didn’t come easy, and Barton is a fine example. Here's a guy who didn’t have his own bed until his final year of high school. Till then, he shared one with three family members. Corner 3-pointers are easy money compared to “Thrill”'s path in life. It must be noted Barton rocked a silk shirt colored with sailboats, and sunglasses, as he spoke.
“As long as I’m on the court I always feel like I’m going to win,” he said.
While press conferences featuring the Joker have been laugh-out-loud funny for four years, even if the national folks are just taking notice, this Nuggets playoff run isn’t all fun and games.
Gary Harris has played through a list of injuries. After missing a would-be game-winning shot against the Spurs, Murray beat himself up to the point he ran straight to the practice gym after playing 34 minutes in his first playoff game. Sunday as he ribbed Barton about his brash shoes, Jokic’s arms were colored bright red, scratched to pieces from another game in which he's hammered on most possessions.
Credit Malone, not for his substitution patterns or gameplans or basketball stuff like that, but how he’s immersed himself in leading a team on the rise. Two trips to Serbia showed Malone has a personal investment in a young team that’s learning what it takes along the way.
“I can’t speak enough about the resiliency and toughness of our team,” Malone said.
Hate to poke the bear, but All-NBA guard Damian Lillard has gone toe-to-toe with Jamal Murray — two games in Denver, two in Portland. Murray has 106 points, Lillard 109.
"My dad and I do a lot of training free throws," Murray said.
"Blindfolded, he'll talk to me just like how the crowd is, put pressure on me. I take 1,000 free throws in practice to make one or two (in a game)," he said.
Season on the line, the baby Nuggets grew up in Game 4. One Blazers fan behind press row screamed when Jokic limped off the court, "Knee him in the (expletive)!" The Nuggets recovered from a four-overtime marathon Game 3 to close out a road playoff game before a crowd that smelled blood.
“You lie in your bed, you have nightmares about what you could have done,” Malone said.
To quote the great Portland philosopher Enes Kanter: Whatever it freaking takes.