DENVER — Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic was presented with the 2020-21 MVP trophy in front of a packed house at Ball Arena prior to Game 3 against the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.
His teammates stood behind him at center court and rushed him with pats on the back and rubbed his head. It was a historic achievement because he’s the first player in franchise history to win the award.
The crowd feverishly chanted, “MVP!”
“It was a special moment, of course,” Jokic said of the ceremony. “I enjoyed the moment.”
That was all Jokic and the Nuggets enjoyed Friday night because it went downhill from there.
For the third straight game, the Suns defeated the Nuggets by double-digits, winning 116-102 to place the Mile High City’s team on the brink of elimination in this second-round Western Conference playoff series.
“We didn’t want to disrespect Jokic’s moment, but at the same time, we also came in here to win a game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That’s something that we’ve stressed for a while is being able to have poise in those moments, whether it’s an emotional fouling situation or something like tonight, which is a pretty unique situation.”
It was supposed to be a good series, but only one team has been good in these playoff bouts.
Jokic's triple-double doesn't paint the full picture
Jokic was fatigued. He notched his first triple-double of the playoffs, scoring 32 points, pulling down 20 rebounds and dishing out 10 assists. Nevertheless, those statistics don’t paint the full picture.
He was 13-of-29 from the field, 1-of-6 from beyond the arc, 5-of-9 from the free-throw line and landed a negative-10 plus-minus, the second-lowest plus-minus in the starting lineup behind Aaron Gordon, who shot an abysmal 2-of-10.
Jokic settled for too many threes and midrange jumpers.
Suns young big man Deandre Ayton, who finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds, is doing an excellent job making his presence felt defensively as the Suns are rarely sending help. The MVP is feeling a physical body on him every trip down the floor around the paint, and it’s causing him to tire and resort to too much outside shooting.
“I can’t say enough about D.A. and what he does for our team,” Chris Paul said after producing 28 points, six rebounds and eight assists. “He does all the things that don’t show up on the stats sheet. Those jump shots that I hit towards the end of the game, those don’t happen without him setting screens, setting it with pace, the rebounds and all of that. He’s so selfless and we’re on him a lot, but he’s showing you why he is who he is.”
Devin Booker had a team-high 28 points to go with six rebounds.
After each loss, the Nuggets — from the coach to players — have tendered some harsh critiques at each other in the form of pep talks and calling the team out in the media. And on each occasion, players have vowed to not duplicate the previous performance.
So far, the Nuggets have been all talk and no action.
Denver fell down 20 in the fourth quarter and then chipped the deficit to 13, but Jae Crowder hit a momentum-killing three from the top of the arc with 7:31 remaining in the game. Crowder then trotted back on defense and directed a hush sign at the Suns’ bench, quieting whatever push the home team had left.
The Suns have quietly gone about handling their business while the Nuggets have been talking about handling business. Friday’s game looked as if it were still being played in Phoenix.
“The effort was there, but let's be honest … this is Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I’m tired of people saying, ‘Hey, our guys played hard.’ They should play hard. That’s not something to be proud about. That’s our job, to go out there and compete and play hard.”
Phoenix shot a blistering 53.1% in the contest and Denver labored, shooting 41.1%.
If the Nuggets wish to extend the series, they’ll have to take care of Game 4 on Sunday.
“The last thing I want to see is the Phoenix Suns pushing a broom across the court after Game 4,” Malone said.
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