DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic galloped around the practice court and bounced off Nuggets teammates in celebration of winning a shooting contest. A day later, Kevin Durant light-heartedly — and insightfully — held court on a variety of topics, including his new lifetime deal with Nike.
Just the calm before the commotion in what’s sure to be a high-scoring playoff series between Denver and Phoenix.
The Nuggets are embracing their underdog status, too. Sure, Denver may be the top seed in the West and boast a back-to-back NBA MVP in Jokic — along with a pair of key contributors healthy for this playoff run — but it’s the fourth-seeded Suns who are the trendy pick.
The Big Three in Phoenix of Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Durant — carries more weight than the trifecta in Denver of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
“We know how talented (the Suns) are,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team hosts Game 1 on Saturday night. “There’s a reason they are the odds-on favorite to come out of the West right now. But I can tell you this: Our guys are excited, up for the challenge, and we all believe that if we play our game, we’re capable of beating anybody.”
Especially with Murray and Porter back at full strength. They both missed the postseason last season — Murray as he recovered from a torn ACL and Porter due to his aching back. The tandem got up to playoff speed during a 4-1 series win over Minnesota in Round 1.
Murray showed he’s back to his 2020 bubble playoff form — when the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals — by averaging a team-leading 27.2 points against the Timberwolves.
“Jamal was amazing,” Jokic said.
The Nuggets face a big challenge in trying to contain Booker, who turned in 47- and 45-point performances in a 4-1 series victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s in addition to Durant, the playmaker acquired at the trade deadline whom Denver forward Aaron Gordon labeled as “a special talent.”
Two years ago, the Suns swept the Nuggets in the second round. But the Nuggets didn’t have Murray for that series, either. Or the depth of this particular group, which now includes Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and rookie Christian Braun.
“We like our chances,” Gordon said.
Durant expects one thing — intensity.
“You’ve got a lot of guys on this floor who’ve got a chip on their shoulder and who’ve been through a lot in this league,” said Durant, who agreed to a lifetime contract with Nike, joining Michael Jordan and LeBron James. “It’s going to bring out that competitive fire. It could be a preseason game or a regular-season game and the guys on both teams are going to bring it.”
It hasn’t taken long for Durant to get up to speed with his new teammates. Asked, though, if there’s another level in him he’s just waiting to unleash it, Durant responded: “I’m never waiting for anything. I’m always trying to go get it as soon as I get on the floor.”
He suddenly paused.
“What are you trying to say?” he kidded. ”I feel like I’ve been involved in impact games since I’ve been here.”
The mood around the Nuggets appeared festive and fun leading into Game 1.
“Fun?” Jokic said. “Can you describe fun?”
You know, running around like he did at practice, looking to celebrate with someone.
“I was just happy I won a shooting contest for the first time in eight years,” he explained.
So, more of a business-like approach?
“Yes,” the player nicknamed “Joker” said.
Murray has averaged 16.9 points and 4.2 assists in the regular season since being taken seventh overall in 2016. But when the calendar flips to playoff time, he takes his game to a new level. He’s averaged 24.7 points and 5.9 assists over 38 career playoff games.
“You know what Jokic is going to do, but Jamal is the guy that really gets them going,” Paul said.
PICK AND ROLL
Jokic had a solution to stopping Phoenix’s pick-and-roll offense.
“Pray,” he cracked.
The Nuggets will certainly see plenty of it to get open looks for the likes of Durant and Booker.
“Pick-and-roll has been our bread-and-butter for a while,” Paul said. “We’re not going to stop doing we’re doing. … What we’ve learned in these 13 games (with Durant) is we sort of take what the game gives us and we adjust from there.”
The Suns arrived in the Mile High City early to acclimate to the higher elevation.
“You’re definitely going to feel it,” Durant said. “It’s about adapting as quickly as possible. It’s a tough place to play, but we’re looking forward to it.”
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