NBA playoffs: Nikola Jokić's absolute dominance sends Nuggets to conference finals, Suns to offseason of uncertainty

PHOENIX — Many nights and in many wins, there is an unrivaled subtlety to Nikola Jokić’s brilliance on the basketball court. He is no predator, rarely stalking prey and hunting matchups to punish in the paint. It’s quite the rarity, how a 6-foot-11, 280-pound force can camouflage his game to whatever takes place before his scanning eyes, assessing the defense as it rotates and switches, holding the ball a second longer, knowing the perfect passing lanes often open as a result of pure patience. Blink, and you might miss how he’s manipulated that very possession. And by the time the scoreboard shows only zeros on the clock, Jokić has quietly amassed another triple-double as he continues climbing the NBA’s record books.

“The defense tells you what to do,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone. “Nikola never forces anything. He’s a guy that literally will just read the game and take what the game offers.”

There are other nights and other wins, where Jokić has palpably bent the proceedings to his creative will, where the defense tells him to go ahead and dominate. That’s when he doesn’t quite operate in the eye of Denver’s hurricane offense, but Jokić is the storm all in itself. He becomes a mammoth at the rim, gobbling rebounds and clearing position against an interior defender that is in trouble the moment Jokić touches the ball, soon to be paralyzed by his fakes and pivots and spins. Jokić exerted that absolute dominance Thursday night, tallying 20 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists before intermission, building a 30-point halftime margin over the Phoenix Suns, as Denver cruised to a 125-100 series-clinching victory to advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2020.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) backs down against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball Western Conference semifinal game, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić (15) works in the post against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA Western Conference semifinals, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“I think sometimes we maybe take Nikola Jokić for granted,” Malone said. The two-time MVP would finish Game 6 with 32 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists and 3 steals. “Because what he is doing every single night is just incredible. He makes everyone around him better. Never gets rattled. Cool Hand Luke.”

“Jokić is an all-time great,” said Kevin Durant. “He’s gonna go down as one of the all-time great centers to ever touch a basketball.”

Denver dropped Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix, succumbing to the downhill attacks of Devin Booker and Durant. And yet the following two contests, Game 5 back at Ball Arena and this decisive battle at Footprint Center, the Nuggets seemed outright unbothered by the competition across the aisle. Denver walloped Phoenix in such convincing fashion, much of the home crowd departed the stadium with 8:35 still remaining in the Suns’ season, as Jokić stepped to the foul line and converted a pair of free throws to stretch the Nuggets’ advantage to 30 points.

“It was deflating to see them score like that,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

The Nuggets have a crystalized eight-man rotation. Denver first found the ideal frontcourt partner for Jokić in Aaron Gordon at the 2021 trade deadline under former team president Tim Connelly. When Calvin Booth rose to the Nuggets’ lead executive position after Connelly departed for Minnesota this past summer, Denver swiftly sent reserve guard Monte Morris and veteran scorer Will Barton to Washington in exchange for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a two-way swingman as good as any complementary wing in the league. Bruce Brown was such a terrific addition in free agency, arriving from Brooklyn for just under $7 million this season, the Nuggets dealt promising young point guard Bones Hyland at this year’s deadline, in part due to Denver’s comfort with Brown’s all-around abilities spelling All-Star caliber guard Jamal Murray. Toss in trusted veteran Jeff Green and bouncy rookie Christian Braun, and it’s hard to argue these Nuggets, who cake-walked toward the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, aren’t both the deepest and most talented team remaining in the postseason. They are the first club to earn a trip to the conference finals for more than a reason.

“Great continuity. Been together for what? How long Mike Malone been there, six years?” Durant said. Denver’s play-caller has, in fact, steered the Nuggets since 2015-16, the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the NBA after Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr. “That’s a good advantage to have when your coach knows your players on the team and you have a system in place for that long.”

Jokić’s rookie campaign came in that same 2015-16 season. Murray arrived the following year as the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and the pick-and-roll chemistry has been brewing ever since. “We’ve been knowing that that’s one of our advantages,” Murray said. “[Jokić] and I, when we’re playing, it’s just a read. We have nothing set in stone. It’s just nice to make basketball reads and just play the game. It might not be one of our nights, but we’re gonna pick each other up. That’s why it’s a team sport.”

The Suns, meanwhile, splurged to acquire Durant just a few months ago, emptying their warchest trying to capitalize on a championship window that was first jump-started before the 2020-21 season by acquiring Chris Paul. That is not an indictment of Phoenix’s approach, which has already netted a Finals appearance, but the contrast between these two franchises and their respective team-building strategies is hard to ignore. Especially in the league’s current landscape, where player trade requests have nearly nullified chasing superstars in free agency, and three of the last four head coaches to win an NBA title — Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel and most recently Mike Budenholzer — have all been terminated by the very franchise they led to the promised land.

Denver has stayed the course instead. Certain characters have come and gone. From players like Gary Harris and Jerami Grant and Malik Beasley to personnel staffers like Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas, now the executive vice president spearheading the Chicago Bulls. But so many pieces, so many people, have endured, grown and grown together.

“This is not a team where you have to force it to get yourself going,” Murray said. “You can trust the pass, you can trust the cut, and we’ve been playing like that for years.”

“Nobody’s won more games in the West in the last five seasons than us,” added Malone.

Caldwell-Pope jogged back to the visitors’ locker room clapping hands and grinning from ear to ear. “Eight more, baby!” he cheered. “Eight more. Let’s go!”

Before the NBA Finals, the Nuggets will either face LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers, who upended their last trip to the conference finals. Or, Denver will have the opportunity to dethrone the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Either way, Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals series begins Tuesday. Plenty of time for the plethora of doubters to hop on board.