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Jokić puts on masterclass and the Nuggets look like the champs again

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DENVER — There is a classic scene in the classic movie “The Great White Hype” that serves as the perfect metaphor for what the Denver Nuggets are doing to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Damon Wayans’ character, a boxer, gets hit with an overhand right by his challenger. He stumbles against the ropes, looks aghast, collects himself and recites the best line of the film.

“Are you trying to embarrass me on TV?!”

And then Wayans, as James “The Grim Reaper” Roper, beats up his opponent.

In the first two games of this series, Minnesota threw the overhand right and knocked the Denver Nuggets woozy. Many thought the Nuggets were done. Alas, all those first two games did was anger them. The Nuggets looked at the Timberwolves, realized the Wolves were a true and worthy challenger, woke themselves up and the series has been a bloodbath since.

On the night he accepted his third NBA MVP in front of the Ball Arena crowd, Jokić turned in a performance for the ages. It’s almost funny to think at this time last week most wondered whether Jokić would have to accept his award in a suit and tie rather than in his uniform with the chance the Nuggets would be out of the playoffs by then.

After Tuesday night’s 112-97 win in Game 5 over Minnesota before a frenzied sellout crowd, the Nuggets have come all the way back from an 0-2 series deficit to take a 3-2 lead. A victory over Minnesota on Thursday could send Denver back to the Western Conference finals.

Jokić’s numbers were ridiculous: 40 points on 22 shots from the field. The Timberwolves tried everything they could to slow him down. They used Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Naz Reid and Kyle Anderson as primary defenders. They trapped him. They played him straight up. They tried to stunt at him. Nothing worked.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been playing that James Roper role for three games. On offense, they have dismantled Minnesota’s defense. On defense, they have shut off the Timberwolves’ water.

“Obviously, we all saw what happened in Game 2,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I thought we collectively weren’t playing like the reigning NBA champions. I think we weren’t playing with our usual swagger. We weren’t playing with confidence. We weren’t playing with any aggression. I think you have to give Minnesota a lot of credit, because they had a lot to do with that.

“I thought Game 2 was a great reminder of us needing to get back to who we needed to be offensively and defensively.”

The past three games stand out because the Nuggets have made it look easy. They’ve played progressively better each game, even with the 27-point win in Game 3 being their largest margin of victory. But the context of this comeback makes what Denver is doing almost astounding. The Nuggets looked overmatched, both physically and mentally, in the first two games of this series, losing both at home. They headed to Minnesota with a 2-0 series deficit and on the surface, the chances of the Nuggets climbing out of that hole were slim.

During the past week, Malone pointed to the Nuggets climbing out of 3-1 series holes against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in 2020. While true, those rallies also come with context as they came in the COVID bubble. The Nuggets didn’t have to win any true road games. Against the Jazz, Denver was without starting shooting guard Gary Harris for the first five games of that series. When he returned, the Nuggets had someone who could defend then-Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. That helped change the series.

Against the Clippers, the Nuggets were galvanized by LA’s Marcus Morris trying to mess with Paul Millsap. That rally was a lot more stunning (Denver was a better team than the Jazz), but the Nuggets still didn’t have to win a true road game.

Those comebacks shed a little light onto what Denver is doing now to a very good opponent. The Timberwolves have one of the best defenses the league has seen in a decade; the Nuggets have shredded it in the last three games. The Timberwolves’ offense was great against the Phoenix Suns; the Nuggets have found a way to render Minnesota ineffective.

More importantly, the Nuggets have defended with vigor. They have gotten to almost every loose ball. They have figured out where shots are coming from and they have defeated the full-court pressure that had defined Minnesota’s defense in the first two games.

“It took a lot of effort to get back into this series, but it was an effort that our guys were committed to,” Malone said. “I think that effort was a big part of why we won tonight. We had 30 assists, so that says a lot about how well we moved the basketball. We got out in transition and got easy buckets there. We are obviously not satisfied. This was a great win in front of a great crowd.

“But now we have to go up to Minnesota and try and close it out, and that’s always the toughest game.”

Last week, Jokić said he could use a clone of himself to deal with Minnesota’s depth on the interior. On Tuesday night, Jokić put on a memorable and mesmerizing shotmaking clinic in the most important game of this series.

“Tonight was a good night for me, and it’s a night that I think I’m going to remember my whole life,” Jokić said. “Standing there, feeling the love from the crowd. This was a night that I won’t forget.”

“Whenever Nikola gets it going like that, you have to take a step back and allow him to dictate the way the game is going to go,” Jamal Murray said. “He had 40. He missed seven shots on the Defensive Player of the Year (Gobert), and it felt like he had 50.”

The Nuggets team that has shown up for the last three games has to once again be considered the title favorite if Jokić sustains this level of play and others pick up the slack when their second and third options have mediocre games. Murray wasn’t great on Tuesday night and it hardly mattered. Michael Porter Jr. played one his worst games of the postseason and it hardly mattered. In their stead, Aaron Gordon was once again a monster, scoring 18 points while grabbing 10 rebounds and handing out five assists. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 16 big points and Christian Braun made a significant impact off the bench.

This is what the Nuggets do when they are at their best. They are defined by their quality depth and ability to find performances in hidden and even unlikely places. If they do close the series on Thursday night, it will be clear that the first two games of the series was a stunning overhand right to knock them against the ropes.

(Photo of Nikola Jokić: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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