The Denver Nuggets completed the sweep to eliminate the Los Angeles Lakers. They’re headed to their first-ever NBA Finals. As we have in each elimination game, we’ll dedicate this report card to the entire series.
Nikola Jokić – A+
Jokić was the best player on the floor for four games. He was a monster in transition, inhaling defensive rebounds and pushing the pace. Anthony Davis, carrying quite the burden on both ends of the floor, tired quickly. Jokić’s improved conditioning shined on one of the biggest stages in basketball.
Davis couldn’t guard Jokić one-on-one. The now infamous early adjustment included switching his assignment. It’s true that AD’s best when roaming in the paint, but it’s still the case that Plan A was for him to handle the matchup. Darvin Ham conceded the battleground quickly. AD, LeBron James, and Rui Hachimura attempted to guard him with varying success. In the end, Jokić put up 27.8/14.5/11.8 on 50% from the field and 47% from deep.
Let’s not forget about Jokić’s defense, either. We’re three rounds into the playoffs, still waiting for the league’s devastating pick-and-rolls to end his rampage through the West. After holding up against the high-powered Suns, Jokić spent considerable time guarding Anthony Davis one-on-one in the postseason. The matchup data is wonky, so let’s rely on our eye test. He was great in that position.
There are many layers to Jokić’s growth. We shouldn’t examine his run so far without acknowledging his improved leadership and demeanor. By all accounts, he’s more vocal than in his early years. And as we all remember, a frustrating whistle would occasionally supplant the actual opponent as the object of Jokić’s attention. That’s old news now. There’s an eery calmness to him. He’s something beyond focused. He’s playing the best basketball of his carer and some of the best we’ve ever seen.
Jamal Murray – A+
Murray left it all behind him. The doubt, the bubble, the pain, the rehab. It’s all in the rearview mirror. He’s in the driver’s seat now. The Denver Nuggets are just four games away from history, and Jamal Murray is four games away from legendary status. Jokić took home the second-ever WCF MVP award, but it could easily have gone to Murray. He scored 32.5 points per game in this series on 52/40/95 shooting splits. He’s the first player in NBA history to do so in the conference finals.
Murray was a flamethrower in this series. Michael Malone implored him to lean into his well-rounded game, too. At his best, Murray is an impactful rebounder. He can make disruptive plays on defense when he digs deep. He answered those calls as well.
Some of the criticism throughout the years was fair. It comes with the gig, and Murray’s been an inconsistent player across regular seasons. It’s a big reason he’s never been an All-Star to date. Of course, some of that is reputation based, and that’s all about to change. With or without the title, the public will view him as a winning player. He’s one of the great playoff risers in basketball history.
I’ve doubted Murray over the years. I’ve questioned the consistency and conditioning and wondered aloud if he’s a good enough second option to deliver a title. Those who always believed stand on firm ground today. He’s good enough. The Denver Nuggets are good enough.
Michael Porter Jr. – B+
Porter Jr. left many open threes on the table in this series. Of course, he still finished the sweep shooting 42% from deep. The expectations for his shot are outrageous, and he’s almost meeting them. Porter struggled from the two-point range, admittedly. He was caught between decisions as he drove into a crowded paint. Unlike many scorers, he still made a positive impact despite shooting 40% from the field.
Porter defended well across four games. He nearly finished with a double-double, grabbing 9.3 per game — the highest mark he’s hit in any series. The same goes for his three assists per game. Even I’ve understated the extent to which he’s grown into a dependable starter.
Not all 40% 3-point shooters are created equal, especially in the playoffs. It’s one thing to hit wide-open shots. It’s another to alter the geometry of the floor alongside elite teammates. Everyone fears Jokić and Murray, yet no one wants to leave Michael Porter Jr. open. And they’re right not to.
The least appreciated aspect of Porter’s contributions is how unlikely they are. Three back surgeries robbed him of his athleticism and crucial reps in developing any prospect. He barely played in college. He had to wait again after being drafted. Then he was dropped into a contender’s ecosystem and told to find his role without disrupting the harmony. So few players could have followed that path to where Porter is now. He’s on the verge of helping the Nuggets win their first-ever title.
Aaron Gordon – C+
Gordon took a step back on defense in this series. He didn’t rebound as well as you’d hope, partly due to his time spent along the perimeter. The Lakers decided to play him off the floor, and it even worked in Game Three. But the series didn’t end without Gordon getting involved. With a historic sweep on the line, AG delivered in Game Four. He took and made the shots the Lakers decided he couldn’t. He played big, he played confident, and he played well. Ultimately, this is a series to turn the page on for Gordon. But he’s still had a great postseason. It’s easy to overlook his contributions in the first two rounds.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A-
Pope had his best series of the postseason so far. He scored 14.8 points per game against the Lakers, a more than four-point increase from his average across the first two rounds. He was lethal from three-point range, shooting 44% against his former team. He hit so many timely shots back in 2020. He did it again in 2023.
Pope’s impact goes well beyond his two-way contributions on the floor. He’s been vocal since training camp, imploring his teammates to improve communication. He saw some championship habits, but not all of them. He kept reminding his teammates what it takes to reach their ultimate goal. He’s relentless on the sideline and in the huddle—an extension of the head coach on the floor. You can bet the Lakers wished he was still on their side.
Bruce Brown – A-
Brown is a madman. He went right at the Lakers on and off the court, letting them know early he wasn’t concerned with reputations or history. He targeted DLo, again, on and off the floor, seeking him out as the weak link. He played him off the court in game one and told the media how it went down. “He’s not the best defender,” Brown shared eagerly.
Brown attacked the rim as if his life depended on it. He mocked the Laker’s celebrations on their home floor, in front of their bench. He talked the talk and walked the walk. Every Nuggets fan can appreciate the chip on his shoulder. Denver needed someone in the second unit to carry water, and Brown stepped up. He averaged 12.3/4.0/2.5 as Denver’s sixth man. He’s a difference-maker in the playoff rotation—another feather in Calvin Booth’s cap.
Jeff Green – D+
Green mostly struggled in this series. Denver didn’t enjoy the same success from their bench as they did earlier in the playoffs. There were long stretches when Green wasn’t scoring, rebounding, or defending anyone. But he made contributions too. A timely charge, massive three from the corner, and successful spot minutes closing in AG’s stead. Ultimately, Denver is 12-3 with this rotation. Malone and Green are making it work.
Christian Braun – D+
Braun was out of the rotation by the time the series ended. It was the first time in his young career that the moment overwhelmed him. He looked flustered sometimes, and his minutes dried up as the series continued. Still, Braun’s played a significant role in Denver’s playoff run so far. That he was even in the rotation is an accomplishment.