Ball Arena was rocking, and with reason. With a past-capacity crowd of 19,762 taking on the inspired play of the Nuggets, yesterday was far more than just the Nuggets making a statement as the National Basketball Association’s best kept secret. As they wound up taking the measure of the supposedly superior Suns, they proved their worth as top seeds in the Western Conference. For all the narratives that conventional wisdom has been putting out about their seeming lack of pedigree, they are most certainly not the same bunch that the blue and orange swept en route to the 2022 Finals.
Indeed, the current-version Nuggets are much, much better — and not simply because they have starting guard Jamal Murray healthy and in peak form. Their improved standing starts with the confidence of top dog Nikola Jokic, borne of two Most Valuable Player trophies and increased familiarity with those around him. To argue that he has become the league’s preeminent puppet master would be to understate the obvious. He plays at his own pace, bends defenses with his excellent court vision and decision making, and anchors an attack that begins with his power off the boards. Yesterday, he had 14 rebounds at the half, a mere one off the tally produced by all the Suns put together.
True, Murray was the difference maker in Game One of the West semifinal round series. As had been in full display throughout the Nuggets’ run to the conference finals in 2020, when he last graced the postseason, he went to a higher gear yesterday, his final line of 34 (on 24 shots), five, and nine justifying head coach Mike Malone’s reference to him as “Playoff Jamal.” That said, the manner in which the blue and yellow took control of the match — against opposition that boasted of proven marquee names in Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Devin Booker — highlighted their capacity to be greater the sum of their parts.
And, yes, the Nuggets do hang their hats on defense, the prevailing notion that Jokic has typically been less than adequate on that end of the court notwithstanding. The recipient of the last two Maurice Podoloff Trophies may not be fleet of foot, but he makes up for whatever deficiencies he has with uncanny intelligence, a willingness to bang bodies, and a keen understanding of the ebbs and flows of competition. If nothing else, the Suns know well enough not to underestimate him at their peril.
Tomorrow, the Nuggets will not be parading something new. They will continue to hit the notes they are best at trumpeting. And the bottom line is clear: The dance they know is the dance no one else can better with the same tune.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.