DENVER — After a sputtering start to their post-season, the Denver Nuggets are starting to look like the team that ended a six-year playoff drought in such dramatic fashion.
Nikola Jokic has a lot to do with it.
Jokic had 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists and fed Jamal Murray (23 points) repeatedly in Denver's 108-90 romp of the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.
"Their chemistry is almost romantic," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "They care about each other, they love each other. They play for each other. That's when we're at our best."
"I mean, we're growing," Jokic said. "We're both really passionate about basketball. So when we have some good plays or whatever, we just want to express our feelings."
surprising second seed in the West, the Nuggets are up 3-2 and can advance to the second round for the first time in a decade with a win in Game 6 Thursday night in San Antonio, where they won last weekend for the first time since 2012.
Two weeks ago, Jokic overcame suffocating double teams to become the fourth player in NBA history to record a triple-double in his playoff debut and the first since LeBron James in 2006. But he scored just 10 points to go with 14 assists and 14 rebounds that night.
Since then, he's averaged 22 points, 11 boards and eight assists. Three times he's come up a pair of assists shy of a triple double.
"I mean, every great player is a challenge. And he can do a little bit of everything, and he does all of those things well," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's the consummate team player who has great skills, but he's also competitive, does a great job, has got a very high basketball IQ."
He's having quite the coming out party on the national stage, too.
"You hear everybody talk about these other players, rightfully so," Denver coach Michael Malone said. "The league is filled with great players. What Nikola Jokic is doing in his playoff debut has not happened very often in the history of this game. Once again tonight 16, 11 and eight. I damn near ran him into the ground. Those 3s at the end of the quarter were huge.
"He can impact the game in so many ways. I hope this playoff crowd, this national TV audience that people are tuning in and watching us and saying, 'Man, this kid Nikola Jokic is real.' We know it and it's about time everyone else realizes it."
Murray's 23 points led the Nuggets, who finally looked like the team that rolled through the regular season led by Jokic and backed up by the best bench in the league. The Nuggets led by as many as 30 points at 99-69, after which all of their starters took a seat.
DeMar DeRozen and LaMarcus Aldridge each scored 17 for San Antonio, but Denver dominated this one almost from the tip.
"They just outplayed us in every facet of the game," Popovich said.
They'll need a similar effort in a closeout game at San Antonio. Asked what he could expect Thursday night, Jokic said, "the toughest game of our lives."
The Nuggets led 26-19 after one quarter. Denver had been outscored in the first quarter in all four games and by a total of 31 points, which didn't sit well with Malone, who said before tipoff, "I think it's important for us to win the first quarter, but not only to match the intensity and their aggressiveness, to exceed it. We have to come out with a hit-first mentality."
Spurs point guard Derrick White was held in check again — he had 12 points after scoring eight Saturday night. He averaged 23 points in the first three games, including a career-best 36 in Game 3, before Malone inserted Torrey Craig into the starting lineup in place of Will Barton, which allowed Gary Harris to guard White.
"I think our guys realized after the first three games Derrick White was the early MVP of this series," Malone said. "And we've done a really good job in the last couple of games of trying to negate his impact. And that's been a big part of our success in the last two."
Popovich said what he's seen in White these last two games is "he's basically a young kid who's feeling his way. Playoffs are different than the regular season. And he's growing and every night is an education, whether he plays poorly or whether he's great. So, he's a willing young man, going to have a great future. But he's got to have this kind of experience. So, hopefully he'll bounce back on Thursday."
San Antonio: The Spurs struggled on the road during the regular season, going 16-25. They're now 1-2 away from home in this series. If they win Thursday night, they'll return to the Pepsi Center for Game 7 on Saturday night.
Denver: Broncos star linebacker Von Miller was in attendance as were Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche, who have advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Should the Nuggets also advance, it would mark the first time since the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995 and became the Avalanche that the city's NBA and NHL franchises both advanced to the second round in the same season.
Game 6 is Thursday night in San Antonio.
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