Keeler: Nikola Jokic, back-to-back NBA MVP, deserved better. Come back, Jamal Murray. Come back, Michael Porter Jr. Nuggets can’t waste another season of Joker’s prime.

He deserved the Willis Reed ending. Nikola Jokic, having carried the Nuggets on his back, by himself, for more than a year, tried to drag the Denver-Golden State series back to Ball Arena on just one working leg.

“It just felt a little bit different,” Jokic said of what was reported to be hamstring tightness, although that didn’t stop him from dropping 30 points, 19 boards and eight assists on Dub Nation in a 102-98, season-ending NBA playoff defeat Wednesday night. “It wasn’t something big.”

Lordy, was he big down the stretch. MVP big. Reed big. The Big Honey sat out a good chunk of the third quarter in a win-or-go-home Game 5 with four fouls and a tight hammy. He spent the early part of the fourth stanza staying loose on an exercise bike, then limped into the fray to account for 12 of the Nuggets’ final 14 points.

On that one stable wheel, Jokic tear-dropped a floater that got the visitors to within two with 3:04 left. Thirty seconds later, he tied it on a 19-footer at 90-all. It was reminiscent of Reed’s gutsy Game 7 for the Knicks in the 1970 NBA Finals. Except for the scoreboard. And Steph Curry.

“I’m going to go home with my head held high,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters at Chase Center after the game. “As will all my players.”

From Day 1, the Nuggets rarely lacked heart. Or guts. Or want-to.

They lacked stars.

A good coach and a good general manager can grind through the regular season with one virtuoso and a lot of backup singers.

Not in the playoffs. Not here. The spotlight in the NBA’s postseason burns hot. There’s nowhere to hide. The cream steps to the microphone and soars. The mortals melt.

After the inexorable Game 1 or the unsightly Game 2, against a healthy Golden State roster at full tilt, Malone admitted that he couldn’t sleep. So at 3 in the morning, he pored over Jamal Murray’s postseason stats in the Bubble in 2020 and remembered what a fair fight looked like.

He remembered when teams wouldn’t dare run a box-and-1 in the playoffs against the Nuggets, the way the Warriors did Wednesday, with a straight face. Because someone other than Jokic could actually make ‘em pay for it.

“The guy,” Malone said of his star center, “is the definition of a warrior.”

A warrior who deserved better. A warrior who can’t fight armies of all-stars by himself and expect the unit to advance. A warrior who’ll be 28 next February. A warrior who just saw another April of his basketball prime ripped from the calendar.

The onus is on the Nuggets now, from president of basketball operations Tim Connelly to Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Fate punched you in the kisser. You rolled with the blow. When some teams lose their two best shooters, the cynical reaction is to tank and reload. The Nuggets chose to fight instead.

While that’s commendable, the clock is ticking. For the window. For Jokic. Where the Warriors are now is where the Nuggets need to be next April. Healthy. Bitter. Cocky. Chasing payback. Chasing a ring. The only place Murray can erase the growing doubts about his head and heart, let alone his knee, is on the floor.

Joker needs you, Arrow. The Nuggets need you. The playoffs need you. Curry has Draymond Green to get second shots on the offensive end while eliminating those same opportunities for the Warriors’ opponents. Curry’s got Klay Thompson to punish the teams that get gassed chasing No. 30 around.

Jokic has Aaron Gordon, whom he found for a no-look pass along the baseline in crunch time … only to watch Gordon fling the ball to the other end of the court. Joker has Will Barton, a stand-up guy and a consummate professional who’d never start for a team that was truly serious about winning an NBA title.

“Missed some great looks from 3,” noted Nuggets guard Monte Morris, who dropped 14 points and six assists but was 2 for 6 from beyond the arc. “At the end of the day, it’s a make-or-miss league.”

Joklc needs guys who bring makes to the table. The Murrays. The MPJs. The guys who can match the Devin Bookers and Stephs and Klays dagger-for-dagger.

The Nuggets will likely say that there’s no rush. Meanwhile, Jokic’s agent, Misko Raznatovic, inferred recently that the supermax contract the Joker’s expected to sign might also be his last. That the NBA’s best player might not be riding this train past the age of 33 or 34.

Jokic can carry a franchise for years. But not forever. The horses are waiting. A young daughter is waiting. Life is waiting. When a scribe asked Wednesday how he felt about the haters, the Joker replied, as only the Joker could:

“(Couldn’t) care less, brother.”

He sounded tired as he said it. Exhausted, actually.

Could you blame him? Reed had Walt Frazier. Bill Bradley. Dave DeBusschere. Hall-of-Famers. Not backup singers. No man, no matter how broad their shoulders, how sweet their shot or indomitable their will, can reach the summit alone.

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