In the history of the NBA, no MVP has ever been stuck in a tougher no-win situation. The Nuggets have handed center Nikola Jokic the keys to a Ford Pinto and asked him to drive it until the wheels fall off.
Well, after a 118-113 loss Thursday to Golden State, the Nuggets are a smoldering heap of regret in the ditch, their playoff dreams ready to be towed to the junkyard.
Hey, could any of us really expect anything except the worst for dinged-up Denver in this opening-round series, when a franchise always waiting until next year is pitted against Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and their Warriors championship bling?
Not when your coach compares his Nuggets to one of crappiest cars ever built in America. A little more than 90 minutes prior to tipoff of Game 3, Michael Malone evaluated the Nuggets against the Warriors and declared: “We’re a Pinto, and they’re a Maserati.”
Know the scary part? Joker is now on the verge of going where Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan never went in their Hall of Fame careers.
In the history of the NBA has any back-to-back MVP ever been swept out of the playoffs two straight years? Jokic has lost seven playoff games in a row. Four against Phoenix in 2021. Three against the Warriors in a span of six days.
Fair or not, the backlash of criticism by NBA talking heads is going to be brutal. But truth be told, the lopsided nature of this series actually reveals why Jokic deserves to be the MVP. Without Joker, this current crew of Nuggets would have trouble beating any team in the league.
“It is hard to rely solely upon Nikola Jokic,” Malone said.
Get past the frustration resulting from the absence of guard Jamal Murray and forward Michael Porter Jr., whose physical ailments made them non-factors all season, and what is revealed? There are severe structural flaws in the make-up of this Denver roster.
The severe limitations of Will Barton and Aaron Gordon have been exposed. As pintos go, they are Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie. Our little ponies.
Injuries happen to every team. Can the Nuggets count on either Barton or Gordon to bring it in future playoff fights? After finally showing up against the Warriors in Game 3, by contributing 18 points and 12 rebounds, Gordon admitted: “Little too late.”
As the Nuggets have regressed from the Western Conference finals, to elimination in the second round of the playoffs to props in a new Golden State quest for a championship over the course of three years, Malone will feel the heat next season.
But the difference in this series isn’t coaching. Or the determination to win. The difference is talent. Horsepower. The Warriors have plenty under the hood. The Nuggets don’t.
Down 111-109 with 3 minutes, 20 seconds, remaining in the fourth quarter after a slow-motion drive by Jokic from the top of the key befuddled two Golden State defenders, the Warriors outscored Denver 11-2 to send the home crowd toward the exits wondering what could have been if those injuries to Murray and Porter never happened.
When Curry decided it was the time for the Nuggets to go nighty-night, the team with proven championship mettle tucked away a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.
“I definitely think that played a huge part in it. They have been here before, time and time again. They’ve seen every tight situation, they’ve been on the biggest stages, they’ve been in the biggest moments,” said DeMarcus Cousins, who started 30 games for Golden State three seasons ago.
After returning to Denver from San Francisco, I’m still suffering from culture shock. The basketball vibe of these two franchises could not be more dissimilar. Everything the Warriors do is first class and all about winning. The Nuggets? They cut corners, keep costs down and fight battles (about TV) that nobody wins.
I asked Warriors coach Steve Kerr if he has ever owned a Maserati.
“No,” Kerr replied. “Interesting question.”
Well, I wondered, has he ever been stuck driving a Pinto?
“I have not,” Kerr said.
He’s a lucky man.
Denver has turned 22-year-old Jordan Poole into a young Kevin Durant, and the remade Warriors have moved Golden State closer to winning a championship than our fly-over NBA city has ever been.
Another MVP-worthy performance – 37 points and 18 rebounds – wasn’t enough for Jokic to deliver victory. After his floater in the lane resulted in a terrible clank, ruining Denver’s last best chance for a lead late in the fourth quarter, Jokic gently tapped his forehead with frustrated fists.
“We wasted a great performance by Nikola,” Malone said. “But we win together, we lose together.”
The Nuggets are wasting the best years of Jokic’s life behind the wheel of a Pinto.
Another MVP award will be nice. But what is Tim Connelly and the Denver front office going to do to give Joker a legit chance to win a championship?
He’s Fred Flintstone, pedaling as fast as he can, going nowhere fast.
Yabba. Dabba. Freaking. Doo.