LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The rain fell and the Joker pouted. The end of this humiliating 124-87 loss to Utah on Friday was a sad scene, painted in shades of gray with regret. As rain puddles formed on sidewalks outside the arena, the Nuggets’ season began to churn down the drain.
For the first time in his remarkable young NBA career, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic sees the prospect of becoming a huge disappointment.
In a playoff game that Denver needed badly to win, Joker was 6 feet tall and nearly invisible.
Skinny Joker was pushed around by central Utah, Rudy Gobert. How could Jokic seem so dissatisfied, especially in a playoff game with so much at stake?
“That would be a great question for Nikola,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
While Jazz center Rudy Gobert dominated at both ends of the floor, scoring 11-of-15 shots for 24 points while amassing 14 rebounds, Jokic stepped back and watched.
I’ve never thought of, let alone typed, these words: The Joker was a joke.
Heaven forbid if John Elway or Peyton Manning ever cheated on a playoff game like Jokic dropped the Nuggets into a sinkhole that feels murkier than their 2-1 deficit in this best-of-seven series.
Although Jokic finished with a respectable 15 points, he only scored one basket and only took two shots by the time this game was all over, except for the pout, when Utah took an impressive 42-20 lead with seven minutes and 29 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Passive Nikola is bad Nikola. For much of the first half, Jokic’s most aggressive move was to duck the repeated dunks by Gobert.
I asked Joker where his A game was going.
“I took really good pictures. I just missed, ”said Jokic. “I think (Gobert) is a great defender … he’s a great player. But I think I just missed shots.”
Gobert has now also improved or matched Jokic’s score production in eight of their 17 career meetings, in which Utah won 10 times.
By the end of the third quarter, Jokic made a careless step to the top of the key. As Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell intercepted the basketball and headed for a dunk that put Utah 30 points ahead, Jokic threw his head back in exasperation. Jokic had quit the game without a fight, just as surely as he had given away a turnover.
I was an eyewitness to this atrocity, from a socially aloof seat in the front row of Section 201 in the Mouse Sports House. Even with a mask on, it was possible to detect the stench of Denver’s performance from my seat on the balcony.
This lopsided loss, which often seemed to be nothing more than an endless series of highlights of undisputed 3-point shots and lay-ups by the Jazz, was even uglier to behold in person than on television.
“How do you know? Did you watch it on TV?” Nuggets fan David Lakes said to my claim. ‘It was extremely ugly. I switched the TV to a 25-year episode of “Law & Order”. ”
The game was tipped off shortly after 4 p.m. in Florida. Aside from Jamal Murray, who played as if the thought of losing back-to-back games against Utah enraged him, the Nuggets acted like a bunch of guys looking for half-price snacks during happy hour.
Murray was shocked by defeat. “I think we have a target on our back,” he said repeatedly, arms crossed defensively across his chest, unsuccessfully trying to hide pain in his heart during a post-game Zoom conference.
Their rise to playoff contender in 2019 was full of hope and optimism, even as San Antonio pushed them to the limit in the first round. This year feels different, with Denver burdened with the weight of expectation.
Denver arrived at the NBA bubble more than a month ago, pounding and disjointed, with prep time for about half of the roster disrupted by COVID-19 issues. The Nuggets treated eight games prior to the playoffs on the Disney campus more like exhibition games, with Malone sacrificing every chance of victory by equipping his best players more than once in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’re giving in too easily,” Malone said. “Our group must be mentally much heavier.”
With a team that has tried to make themselves believe this is a legitimate title contender, Malone will feel the heat if he doesn’t figure out how the Nuggets can win this series.
To be fair, Denver also trailed 2-1 in the opening round against the Spurs a year ago, but didn’t lose two games close to 56 points in these two Utah bursts.
If the Nuggets want to have any chance at a comeback, it doesn’t start with a coaching strategy. It has to start with Jokic calling himself the best player on the floor.
If the Nuggets can’t find the Joker we know and love, they don’t stand a chance.