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Nikola Jokić and the defending champion Nuggets are charging up for another title run

When his Nuggets entered the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak, you might’ve expected Michael Malone to be at least moderately miffed.

After all, the hard-charging coaching lifer has never shied away from a chance to hold his teams accountable. Coming off blowout losses to the Kings and Bucks, followed by another loss to Sacramento that saw Denver blow a 16-point, third-quarter lead and allow an 11-0 run in the final three minutes, it wouldn’t have been particularly surprising to see Malone take stock of a squad that had fallen to fourth place in the Western Conference and feel compelled to administer an ass-kicking. A hailstorm of invective about inattention to defensive detail; a paroxysm of serrated critiques of his roster.

And yet!

“We lost three in a row right before the All-Star break, and I’m sure there were plenty of people around Denver jumping off bridges somewhere,” the head coach told reporters last week. “Everybody’s just gotta take a chill pill, man. Relax. Take a deep breath.”

So: What leads an NBA head coach — a group of people famous for maniacal focus on the minutiae, a profession long defined by Big Thibs Energy — to suddenly start suggesting self-regulation? Knowing you’ve got a Larry O’Brien Trophy in the case probably helps. So, too, does knowing what you’ve got coming.

Namely, The Lightning.

The Lightning can strike in many forms: as a motivational text to the team group chat; as a defensive rebound turning into a full-court outlet pass in one fluid motion; as a layup that resembles playing keepaway from determined children; as a twirling-toward-freedom pirouette into a buzzer-beating Sombor Shuffle. Whichever form it takes, though, it leaves a mark — and the Nuggets seemingly came out of the All-Star break intent on making their opposition look like Nikola Jokić’s arms after, like, every game.

Whatever miniature malaise the Nuggets might’ve felt heading into All-Star Weekend sure as hell seemed to dissipate once they came out of it; the defending NBA champions ripped off six straight wins by a combined 88 points, and enter Thursday’s marquee matchup with the NBA-leading Boston Celtics just one game behind the Timberwolves and Thunder for the West’s top spot. They’ve got the league’s second-best offense and fifth-stingiest defense since the break, according to Cleaning the Glass — the kind of overwhelming balance that helped propel them to the 2023 NBA championship, and that Malone and Co. hope to ride into a title defense this spring. (NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted earlier this week that the Nuggets' first five games out of the break was their “best five-game stretch of defense … this season.” Oh, The Lightning. You've found yet another form.)

At the heart of it all, as ever, is Jokić, who looks every bit the favorite to take home his third Most Valuable Player trophy come season’s end.

Jokić is averaging 24.9 points, 14.4 rebounds and 10.7 assists per game since the All-Star break, shooting an absurd 66% on 2-pointers. He turned in triple-doubles in Denver’s first four games out of the break — all of them secured before the fourth quarter even started — and the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 119 points in 256 minutes with him on the floor in that span, which works out to a whopping 22.2 points per 100 possessions.

This is a man so devastating that he left Draymond Green — eight-time All-Defensive Team selection, former Defensive Player of the Year, still excellent at basketball, famously confident in his abilities as a stopper and on-air talent — reduced to simply laughing about the degree to which Jokić gave him the kind of hell for which there are no answers:

(In fairness, he did tell us that The Lightning would be Unforgiving.)

With Jokić providing his customary brand of reduce-you-to-rubble playmaking and scoring, a Nuggets offense that sat just outside the top 10 in points scored per possession prior to the All-Star break has snapped to attention.

Jamal Murray, Jokić’s partner in the sport’s most beautiful and brutalizing two-man game, is averaging 22.5 points, 6.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on 55/46/91 shooting splits despite playing through nagging lower-leg injuries. After scoring 30 or more points once in 55 games before the break, Michael Porter Jr. has done it twice in eight games since; he is putting up 22 points and nine boards per game on 55/41/100 shooting and went 10-for-10 from the field against the Lakers.

Perfect-fit forward Aaron Gordon is shooting 71% inside the arc, with twice as many assists (30) as turnovers (14), and nearly as many steals and blocks (13), while guarding the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s logging highway miles chasing whichever top perimeter threat Gordon's not checking, while also making more than half of his 3-pointers.

As it did last season, Denver’s starting five continues to coalesce brilliantly. The unit of Jokić, Gordon, Porter, Caldwell-Pope and Murray has been one of the NBA’s best big-minutes lineups all season long, and has kicked it up a notch of late, outscoring opponents by 43 points in 82 minutes since the break — nearly 26 points-per-100.

And when Caldwell-Pope’s been unavailable, as he was against the Lakers on Saturday due to personal issues, the remaining quartet just keeps soldiering on. Enter veteran swingman Justin Holiday, with whom Denver’s other starters outscored L.A. by nine points in 11 minutes. In a scene reminiscent of the 2023 Western Conference finals, the Nuggets absolutely took the Lakers apart down the stretch with the brand of execution and shot-making that can produce buckets on eight straight possessions, turning a nip-and-tuck affair into a 10-point victory:

Asked after the game if he felt like the Lakers were closing the gap with the defending champs, Lakers superstar Anthony Davis said they were … but only “in a sense.”

“Because they do the same thing. And they beat us with it every time,” he told reporters. “So yes, we’re getting closer as far as the first, I guess, 42 minutes, or you can even say 44 minutes, right? And then that last four minutes is just them getting to what they get to.”

Denver’s been getting to that a lot. The Nuggets have outscored opponents by a league-best 23.1 points-per-100 in 106 “clutch” minutes — defined by NBA Advanced Stats as when the score’s within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime — by combining that Swiss-watch-precision offense with a defense with the length, quickness, collective smarts and experience to clamp down tightest when it counts most.

“We’re playing the right way this time of year, and our guys are locked in, regardless of the opponent,” Malone told reporters after the Lakers win. “We know that we have to find our rhythm, and if the last six games are any indication, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

The challenge, though, is sustaining that level of lock-in. Case in point: Tuesday’s loss to a Suns team that was missing superstar guard Devin Booker, but still featured Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and a flamethrowing Grayson Allen.

All it can take to undermine six straight games of full-tilt excellence? Eight spotty second-and-early-third-quarter minutes, during which Phoenix ripped off a 31-7 run and shot 11-for-15 from the floor against a Nuggets team that Malone later described as featuring “some guys [who] were in chill mode.” (OK, so: “chill pill” = good; “chill mode” = bad. Please update your files.)

Even with the Suns scorching that permissive Denver defense and, though, the Nuggets were able to charge back, erasing a 22-point deficit and leading by three in the final minute … before KD nailed a tough pull-up 3 to send it to overtime, Jokić couldn’t answer, and a pair of early-OT turnovers gave Phoenix enough daylight to pull away for the win. Lightning crashes; an old mother dies.

“It’s such a winnable game,” Murray told reporters after Tuesday’s loss. “That might be one of the worst losses we’ve had, and that’s on us.”

The "that's on us" framing risks giving the Suns short shrift. Phoenix’s defense stood tall in the tell-tale second quarter. An engaged Jusuf Nurkić is one of the few opponents capable of physically matching up with Jokić (when he can stay out of foul trouble). Beal’s north-south juice adds an important dimension to the Suns’ offensive attack. KD remains a cheat-code shot-maker. Mix in a healthy Booker, and this version of the Suns has a chance to be a significantly tougher out than the model Denver dispatched in six games last spring.

Murray’s lens is worth noting, though, because it underscores the position in which Denver finds itself, nine months removed from hoisting its first Larry O’B and less than two months away from attempting to hoist another. Plenty of teams feel like they can win it all if they can just enter April prepared to hit the right notes. Thanks to last year, the Nuggets know it — know that they can control the game and their fate against any opponent, provided they don’t beat themselves. That’s on us.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration) (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Malone and Co. also know, though, that they can’t skip steps while they’re tuning up.

“The moment you come up for air and you relax, you set yourself up for failure,” Malone said earlier this week. “We want to stay away from that and continue to find ways to push ourselves to be even better, because I do feel that we still have another gear, another level we can get to as a team.”

Reaching that level, obviously, requires health. This is why Murray’s ongoing battle with both shin splints (which Malone recently told reporters the Nuggets would have to manage for the foreseeable future) and a sprained right ankle (suffered during last week’s win over the Heat) looms as one of the biggest swing factors in the entire title picture.

As has been the case for years, the Nuggets are at their best when Jokić and Murray share the floor, outscoring opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. And, as has been the case for years, they’re in dire straits whenever their Serbian bellwether hits the bench, getting outscored by 12 points-per-100 with Jokić off the floor.

Their best chance of surviving those minutes against elite competition: mix-and-match bench lineups with multiple starters supplemented by some combination of Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, Reggie Jackson and Zeke Nnaji (at least, until Gordon fully takes over the backup 5 minutes again). Their best chance of those minutes working comes with a fully operational Murray capable of creating good looks for his teammates and — perhaps even more importantly — cashing tough ones for himself. If he’s hobbled or limited, those odds plummet. Given the quality of the squads the Nuggets will have to face in the Western bracket, trouble in those minutes could prove disastrous to their efforts to get back to the sport’s grandest stage.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 29: Jamal Murray (27) and Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets work against the Milwaukee Bucks during the fourth quarter of the Nuggets' 113-107 win at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, January 29, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post) Milwaukee
The Nuggets are at their best when their dynamic duo is on the floor together. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post) (AAron Ontiveroz via Getty Images)

That’s one reason why the Nuggets are focused less on winning the West’s No. 1 seed than on getting as healthy and in-rhythm as possible by the start of the postseason. Because while Denver’s working through its questions about Murray’s legs, the state of its bench, and the non-Jokić minutes, the other contenders are searching for their fair share of answers, too.

The Timberwolves have boasted the NBA’s most ferocious defense all season, with enough size up front and along the perimeter to match up physically with Denver. But a meniscus injury sending Karl-Anthony Towns to the sideline indefinitely further complicates Minnesota’s efforts to solve a sometimes-sputtering offense that ranks 17th in points scored per possession overall and 24th in “clutch” offensive efficiency, with the second-worst crunch-time turnover rate of any playoff team. (Hey there, Pelicans.) Add the uncertainty surrounding Towns to their lack of postseason success — particularly against a Nuggets team that beat them last spring — and the burden of proof still rests squarely on the Wolves’ shoulders.

The Thunder, for that matter, have an even lighter postseason résumé than the Wolves. (They’ve yet to even play a playoff game together, let alone win a series.) Oklahoma City is arguably the most balanced team in the conference, though: one of just two teams in the NBA in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency — the Nuggets play the other one on Thursday — led by MVP short-lister Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, two-way rookie phenom Chet Holmgren and star-hiding-in-plain-sight Jalen Williams. What OKC has in depth and variety, though, it lacks in sheer heft on the interior; a team that ranks 29th in defensive rebounding rate and second-chance points allowed figures to have a pretty miserable time dealing with the size of Jokić, Gordon and Porter on the interior, not to mention opportunistic board-crashers like Braun and Watson off the bench.

The Clippers, at their peak, are terrifying — an elite offense helmed by the star troika of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden, switchable wings everywhere and a tactical ace on the sideline in Tyronn Lue. They haven’t approached that summit much lately, though, going an uninspiring 6-6 with a 20th-ranked offense and a 25th-ranked transition defense over the last month. And while every season and squad is different, you’d imagine the Nuggets wouldn’t be particularly terrified of an opponent they’ve beaten 11 times in 14 tries since that devastating comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the 2020 bubble playoffs.

Lineup uncertainty, injury issues, consistency concerns … everybody else out West has questions, too. And none of them has an answer on the level of the horselord who might like to serve Dante, but who, with enough truth serum in his system, will make it clear just how much he loves winning.

“You know that I told you that I don’t want to stay on parade,” Jokić told an adoring crowd in the streets of Denver last June. “But I f*****g want to stay on parade.”

To do that, he and the rest of the Nuggets will need to spend the next five weeks shifting out of marathon mode and into the starting blocks for the postseason sprint. That’s the trick, the one all champions figure out: finding the right pace to run your race.

“It doesn’t matter if that pace is faster or slower,” the legendary Bill Walton told Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker, part of a wonderful feature on Jokić that ran last month. “It’s just got to be different. Because the difference of your pace creates the separation.”

Nobody plays at a pace more different than Jokić. Now, he and the Nuggets get ready for their closing kick … and the rest of the league’s championship hopefuls get ready to try to prove that, this time around, they can keep up and avoid getting left in the dust.