One down in Denver
DENVER — They call him "The Joker" in these parts, but there's nothing funny about what Nikola Jokic does on the basketball court.
There aren't many 7-foot assassins in the NBA, but Jokic certainly qualifies.
The numbers — 37 points, nine rebounds, six assists — tell only part of the story of Jokic's impact as Denver disposed of the Trail Blazers 121-113 in the opener of the Western Conference semifinals Monday night at Pepsi Center.
Jokic is the Nuggets' Damian Lillard, albeit in a Triple-XXX package. He is Denver's franchise player, directing traffic at a different altitude than the average floor leader.
Teammate Paul Millsap called Jokic "our Tom Brady, adjusting to whatever teams throw at him."
That's actually not a bad analogy.
Jokic, who possesses a basketball IQ beyond his 24 years, sees the court as Brady sees the football field, scanning for holes in the defense.
"I can read everything," he said in the postgame media session. "I just need to know what they're going to do. San Antonio was playing one way; Portland is playing a completely different way. I think I'm capable of reading those defenses."
Jokic was 11 for 18 from the field, 3 for 5 from 3-point range and 12 for 12 on free-throw attempts. The Serbian also had three steals and two blocked shots in 41 stellar minutes. Whenever he got to the foul line, fans serenaded him with "MVP!" chants, just as the Moda Center partisans do for Lillard. Jokic looked fatigued at times and didn't exactly sprint up the court, but he answered the bell time after time.
"It comes down to Nikola embracing the moment," Denver coach Michael Malone said. "Maybe he's a lot tougher than any of us thought. To play that many minutes at that level is remarkable — especially for a young guy."
The Blazers are going to have to contend with Jokic through a series that just got a little more difficult.
"He's a great player," said Lillard, who scored 39 points in his own right. "It has to be a team effort. You're not going to take him completely out.
"We have to make him see bodies. We have to be physical. We have to help the bigs on the post and get back to our man. And we have to keep him off the glass after he shoots his first attempt, because he's great at getting it back and putting it in.
"He does a lot of little things in his favor, because he doesn't depend on athleticism and speed. It's kind of sneaky, and when you relax, he's getting layups and free throws. We have to make it harder for him than it was tonight."
The Blazers at least made him work at the defensive end. Enes Kanter, questionable until near game time due to a sore left shoulder, delivered a spirited offensive performance with 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting.
"Enes was terrific," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He was very efficient finishing around the basket, playing through the injury. I couldn't have asked any more from him."
The Blazers were well-rested, having ended their five-game first-round series against Oklahoma City last Tuesday. The Nuggets, meanwhile, were playing two days after completing their seven-game first-round series with San Antonio. But they came out sharp and energized, shooting .506 from the field, sinking 12 of 29 3-point field-goal attempts and getting just enough defense to pull out the victory.
"We were on an emotional high after winning a Game 7," Malone said. "That was my biggest concern tonight — how would we react to an emotional hangover? Our guys did a pretty good job."
It was a shootout of sorts, with not a lot of push-back at times.
"I did not like our defense tonight, especially in the first quarter," Malone said. "Defense was not a part of the game for either team, really.
"I kept telling our team in the huddle, 'The first team that actually gets defense into the game will be the team that wins.'"
The Nuggets led only 58-55 at the half but separated in the third quarter, running the difference to 93-84 heading into the final period. The Blazers cut the margin to 101-96 with nine minutes remaining, but Denver went on an 8-0 run for a 109-96 advantage, and Portland never seriously threatened again.
"We got the win — and when you get a win and know you didn't play your best basketball, that's a good feeling," Malone said. "But we have to be a lot more locked in on the defensive end of the floor to get a win in (Wednesday's) Game 2."
"Tonight's game was really sloppy," Jokic said. "There was not a lot of defense, and both of us had a lot of turnovers."
Especially the Blazers. Denver turned 18 Portland turnovers into 23 points. The Blazers got only six points from the Nuggets' 13 giveaways.
"No question the turnovers hurt us," Stotts said. "It was a good offensive game for us, but the turnovers made a difference."
The Blazers shot .519 from the field, including 11 for 29 (.379) on 3-point attempts. Lillard made 12 of 21 shots overall but was only 4 for 12 from beyond the arc. CJ McCollum finished with 16 points on 7-for-17 shooting, hitting only 2 of 7 treys.
Rodney Hood came off the bench for 17 points in 18 minutes after totaling 16 points in the entire OKC series. Besides Lillard, Kanter, Hood and McCollum, though, the other six Blazers who saw action combined for 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting.
But it was at the defensive end where the Blazers didn't have it. The Nuggets made open shots the Thunder hadn't hit in the previous series.
"(The Thunder) didn't have these kind of shooters," Lillard said. "(The Nuggets) have a lot of guys who are pretty much knock-down 3-point shooters, and they have a guy in the middle who is a facilitator. They're cutting, finding the open man ... there's a lot of action going on, and you have to honor that."
Jokic wasn't a one-man show, getting major help from 21-year-old point guard Jamal Murray (23 points, six assists, one turnover in 34 minutes) and Millsap (19 points). Guards Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Will Barton and Monte Morris combined for 56 points and collective 8-for-19 3-point shooting.
"They produce more quality (3-point) looks and make it hard on you to get out there and take that shot away," Lillard said. "And then sometimes, our communication wasn't good enough. It turned into open 3's by guys we don't want to give open 3's to."
Lillard said there is no reason for the Blazers to hang their heads.
"It's just one game," he said. "The team that's playing on (its) home floor has to protect it. Tonight, it was a competitive game, and they got the first one. We'll have a chance to show (improvement) in the next game. We'll bounce back."
Off the court, "The Joker" really is kind of a funny guy, it seems.
During his postgame media session, he spotted me — or maybe heard me — frantically transcribing his comments on my laptop.
"I think someone is typing really fast," he said. "Good job."
That got a few chuckles, even from me.
Denver Post columnist Mark Kizla asked him why he is typically so late for his media sessions.
"I just like to hang out with the guys," Jokic said after some thought. "I have my routine, and I feel good about that. I just try to keep my routine."
And what's that routine?
"Just an ice bath and a stretch," he said. Then a pause: "I need to get in here quicker."
More laughs. Anything goes after a game like Jokic had Monday night.
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