Be careful who you listen to.
In today’s NBA, culture, chemistry, and team still matter, contrary to what a lot of people in the super team era will say. And that was proved again on Thursday when the Nuggets clinched their second trip to the Western Conference Finals in the last four years.
Nuggets-Suns in a lot of ways was about individual vs. team. It was about one franchise that built through the draft, played a selfless style of basketball, stayed patient amid its journey, and in the end, saw its process pay off vs. another organization filled with individuals who frayed when it mattered most. In Games 5 and in Thursday’s series-deciding Game 6 that was apparent.
The Nuggets came together while the Suns split apart. Denver, a team that preaches chemistry, culture, synergy, ball movement, and unselfish play won out over an opponent that went out swinging with two 1-on-1 isolation scorers whose your-turn my-turn approach wilted in the face of a defense that no one took seriously all season long. Just because you have more guys who can “get you a bucket” doesn’t mean your offense is unguardable.
Of course, it was the figure at the center of this era of Denver basketball who set the tone in the Nuggets’ 125-100 series-clinching win over the Suns, who entered the series as the favorites to make it out of the West. Nikola Jokic finished with 32 points (13-18 FG’s) — Jokic offensive rebounded and scored two of his five misses Thursday night — 10 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals and 1 block. For the series, Jokic averaged 34.5 points (59.4 FG%, 44.4 3P%), 13.2 rebounds, 10.3 assists and the Nuggets outscored the Suns by 74 points in his 231 minutes. He outscored Devin Booker, who after the Suns’ Game 4 win was anointed by many, 207-185 in the series.
If you don’t believe Jokic is the best basketball player on earth, please seek help.
Everywhere you looked throughout the series, the culture that Denver constantly preaches was on display. Aaron Gordon, who Jokic called “the soul” of the Nuggets earlier this season, put on a pristine defensive performance. Kevin Durant averaged 29.5 points per game in the series but only shot 45.3% from the field. He shot 51.8% in Round 1 and 56% this regular season.
Per NBA.com tracking data, Durant shot 26-82 (38.2%) and finished with 11 assists and 11 turnovers when defended by Gordon in the series. Give Gordon his damn flowers. He’s the definition of a selfless player who bought into Denver’s culture and his role. He’ll do anything to win.
“He’s solid and so underrated in the role he plays for us,” Jamal Murray said of Gordon.
The Nuggets held the Suns — the team that was supposed to play Jokic off the floor in pick-and-rolls and have its way with Denver’s defense — to 100 points in Game 6. The Suns only scored 87 points in Game 2. They were limited to 102 points in Game 5. It turned out to be the other way around. The Nuggets were the ones who frustrated the Suns’ offense.
In classic Nuggets fashion, Game 6 was a total team win. Five Nuggets players scored in double-figures. Denver had three 20-point scorers — Jokic, Murray, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose first-quarter KC-Spree where he scored 17 points in the opening 12 minutes got Denver out to an initial lead. Bruce Brown gave Denver energy off the bench. Others stepped up when needed.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this journey, around these guys,” Jokic said. “And I think we can do something nice.”
And that’s what’s so exciting about what could be next for this group. As the clock ticked toward zero and the Nuggets’ second trip to the Western Conference Finals in four years became official, the camera panned to Jokic and Murray sitting on the bench and watching Denver’s reserves close Phoenix out. They didn’t even look that happy. They weren’t that excited. They were simply pleased that the Nuggets finished this job. It appeared that they were already on to what was next.
What’s next is Jokic, Murray, and Michael Malone’s second Conference Finals. Jokic, Murray, and Malone now have more trips to the Conference Finals than first-round exits on their resume as the best era of Nuggets basketball rolls on.
We’ll see if they can add the Finals to that list of accomplishments.