The Nuggets were clawed, spun and mutilated.
This NBA playoff series started with a statement game. There was no mistaking what Kawhi “The Claw” Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers bluntly told us on Thursday in a decisive 120-97 win.
Denver is unworthy to be taken seriously as a champion.
“You could say anything, it would be true,” said Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets center. “It was a bad, bad night for us.”
But do you know what really hurts?
Jokic stood there and let it all be.
Now we all love Big Honey. The Nuggets wouldn’t be here without Jokic, who was great in a close-out win against Utah. So is it okay to offer a little tough love?
Hey, Joker: be better.
Hard? No. The honor of being recognized as an all-star carries great responsibility.
As it is now, no one in America outside of the 303 thinks Denver belongs on the same floor as Leonard, who finished with 29 points. Or didn’t you hear Charles Barkley’s snark at half time when he turned down the Nuggets?
“They didn’t get a chance in this series,” said Chuckster.
And you know what? Barkley may be right. Will the Nuggets even fight?
If Joker is no better, Denver has a less than zero chance of winning a game, let alone this series.
Oh, Jokic had its moments. Best of all was his tribute to the late, great Darryl Dawkins with a basket to take the lead to 31 to close the first quarter. The Nuggets center poured some special sauce on a Serbian-thunder-flyin ‘, Clipper-cryin’, rump-roastin ‘, bun-toastin, wham-bam-Joker-I-am dunk.
And then Jokic disappeared.
Jamal Murray caught the nation’s attention with 50-point bursts and tugged at his heart with his emotional calls for social justice as he brought Denver back from a 3-1 series hole against Utah during the opening round of the playoffs.
Yes, fatigue turns us all into cowards. A body in desperate need of a rest could explain why Murray missed 10 of 15 field goal attempts and ended up with a forgettable 12 points against L.A.
Forcing the Nuggets back on the field less than 48 hours after surviving all that Jazz wasn’t fair. But is there anything fair about 2020?
“I wasn’t tired at all,” said Jokic.
Haven’t we seen this pathetic defense against L.A. somewhere before? A moment. Oh yeah. The welcome mat in the lane and the socially aloof D against the 3 ball almost made Denver run out of the bubble.
In fact, this game was over after two quarters, when the Clippers shot 63% off the field. There was no mystery to L.A.’s violation. It was a markup line.
And the buck stopped with Jokic, whose idea of defense was to get the ball off the bottom of the basket.
Skinny Joker is good. But his effort cannot be so small at the defensive end that they are invisible.
“To win, we need better games from Jamal and Nikola,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
From Patrick Beverley to Paul George, the Clippers can throw long and aggressive D at Murray from all angles. He will not average more than 30 points in this series.
With Ivica Zubac on the post for L.A., the most profitable matchup for the Nuggets to find success with is to put the ball in the hands of Jokic. His 15 points before sitting on the couch to see the conclusion of this blowout won’t save him.
Where do the Nuggets come from?
Coach Malone’s job is to give his team a reason to believe.
He gave Guard Gary Harris, whose defensive contributions were invaluable to survive and advance in round 1 of the playoffs, his first spot in the starting line-up since March.
Well, so much for that experiment.
Go back to Monte Morris in the first five. Let Harris be a D specialist. Morris can get the offense moving and allow Murray to focus on scoring.
And Paul Millsap? Please. Don’t get me.
“I go to my room and do about 100 push-ups just for a mindset check,” said Millsap, after finishing a minus-16 in net scoreboard points during his 24 minutes of play.
Millsap is an old basketball player. I am an old man. Getting old isn’t easy, I know that all too well.
So I will not choose Millsap for playing old. I even pour him a glass of lemonade when he sits down on the couch.
In its place, the Nuggets Michael Porter Jr. or Mason Plumlee should start. Or Rocky the mascot.