“It’s pure basketball”: Nuggets’ championship defense starts in familiar fashion

The Nuggets won their first championship in franchise history last season by playing basketball the right way. Denver passed up good shots for great shots. No one on the Nuggets was concerned about their individual stats. Selfless basketball – the DNA of this team – was always on display.

Nikola Jokic, as we all know, would rather hand out an assist than score a basket.

But in the first half of Game 1 against the Lakers, those extra passes and unselfish plays didn’t lead to shots made. Denver converted just 6-23 (26.1%) of its three-point attempts. The Nuggets went ice cold. However, they trusted their process and sure enough, their fortunes changed after halftime. Denver then shot 9-19 (47.45) from beyond the arc through the third and fourth quarters.

It’s what led the Nuggets to a 114-103 win and a 1-0 series lead.

“That’s the beauty of this team,” Jamal Murray said of the Nuggets’ chemistry, synergy and tendency to play for each other. “It’s pure basketball.”

Credit: Ryan Greene, DNVR

The pure basketball that Murray talks about has been brewing in the Rocky Mountains for some time. It didn’t happen overnight. It was built brick by brick, pass by pass, created basket by basket.

Jokic and Murray played together for the past seven years. The Nuggets signed Michael Porter Jr. called up in 2018. Aaron Gordon landed in the Mile High City three years ago. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been here for two seasons.

This isn’t how the NBA usually works in this era. You usually don’t see this kind of continuity or this kind of connection within a team these days.

This is something special.

“I think we know how to play together,” said Jokic, who finished with a team-high 32 points, 12 rebounds and a team-high 7 assists and dominated Anthony Davis and the Lakers’ frontcourt all night. “I think it’s not just one player, I think everyone knows what to do. Everyone’s roles are very well established. We all fulfill our roles as best we can, that’s the best way I can describe us.”

In the Nuggets’ ugly offensive first half of Game 1, Denver faced foul trouble. Gordon picked up two personals in the first quarter and logged just 12 minutes in the first half. So second-year forward Peyton Watson, who made his playoff rotation debut on Saturday, stepped in and was tasked with guarding LeBron James. Wats0n led the Nuggets’ bench with eight points, going 2-4 from three-point range.

Also stepping into the rotation was DeAndre Jordan, who did not play in the final five games of the regular season for the Nuggets. But the veteran held his ground and provided some muscle and physicality with Jokic on the bench.

“He’s a great person in every aspect of a locker room or team,” Jokic said of Jordan. “He is good to give you advice on and off the field, to fool someone, to fool him, he is always up to something, to share a glass of wine. He’s a really good teammate.”

Then, after halftime, the Nuggets took the lead.

As we watched the third and fourth quarters of Game 1, it was hard to imagine that the Nuggets could lose this series. Anthony Davis, who matched Jokic with 32 points, again couldn’t guard the soon-to-be three-time MVP-crowned 1-on-1 or bother him as a weak defender. Davis also logged 45 minutes of playing time.

He doesn’t have the stamina to keep that up for the entire series or continue to chase Jokic down the floor.

Another storyline from Game 1: The Nuggets finished with six total free throw attempts and only four turnovers. The free throw attempts? Well, you know the story there. The Lakers attempted 19. The turnover? The reality is that this Nuggets team may know the Lakers better than Los Angeles knows itself.

Jokic had 0 turnovers in 39 minutes. Murray also had 22 points, 10 assists and 0 turnovers in 39 minutes. The only Nuggets starter posting turnovers? Aaron Gordon. He had one.

The Nuggets have now won nine straight games against the Lakers. Last year they beat them in the Western Conference Finals. Denver has now recorded five straight wins against Los Angeles this season.

The Nuggets know exactly what the Lakers will throw at them and when. They won’t be surprised by anything in this series, including the desperation with which Los Angeles will play in Game 2.

“We are desperate too,” Jokic said. “We don’t want to lose at home.”