There was a point this season where the Denver Nuggets had no injury concerns with the playoffs on the horizon. That was before they lost star guard Jamal Murray for the year with a torn ACL.
That injury, which came in the final minute of a narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 12, had the potential to derail a promising season for Denver. Murray was averaging over 21 points a game from the point guard position in his fifth season as a Nugget, and much of Denver’s offense revolved around his two-man game with Nikola Jokic.
Next Man Up
Fortunately for Nuggets coach Michael Malone, this is a squad famous for its mental resilience. Twice in the 2020 playoffs, the Nuggets rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to make the Western Conference Finals. Malone preached a ‘next man up’ mentality that would see the Nuggets through after losing Murray – and so far, so good.
In the eighteen games following the trade deadline acquisition of Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets went 15-3, the best record in the NBA over that timespan. That included a 6-1 run after the injury to Murray, despite also losing starting guard Will Barton to a long-term injury in the process.
Michael Porter Jr. has stepped admirably into Murray’s shoes as a premier scoring option. The former Missouri forward is playing only his second full season in the NBA but averaged 23.5 points per game (PPG) and 7.8 rebounds per game (RPG) without Murray in the team. He also went for a career-high 39 points in a victory over the Houston Rockets.
Elsewhere in the squad, former G-League product PJ Dozier has provided Denver’s best net rating among players with 20 games or more, a massive return for a player who took an unusual route into basketball. Gordon’s arrival has provided a stout defensive veteran who could guard a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs. But even more importantly, they have one of the best players in the league, playing the best basketball of his life.
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Joker on History’s Doorstep
Nikola Jokic, already considered one of the greatest passing big men of all time, has taken his reputation to a new level this season. The ‘Joker’ ranks in the top ten for all major statistical categories in the NBA, is shooting over 40% from deep, and is averaging nearly a triple-double, a feat achieved by only one other player this century. He also leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating and ranks second for triple-doubles, behind only Russell Westbrook.
That has all combined to see Jokic tipped as -450 favorite to win the MVP award in the latest basketball odds. His competitors for the award, among them Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Steph Curry, have all played well this campaign but have also all missed time with injuries – Jokic stands alone in the NBA as the only player to average over 25 PPG while playing every game this season. Winning MVP would make Jokic the first center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.
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That consistency and competitiveness is a big reason the Nuggets are still alive in the scrap for home-court advantage in the playoffs. A narrowing race at the top of the Western Conference has seen the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers all fighting it out with Denver for the top positions – a tough first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers potentially awaits the team that lands in the fourth seed.
With their rivals playing some of their best basketball late into the season, it will fall to Jokic and his supporting cast if Denver are to make another deep run this year.
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