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Nuggets realize defending NBA championship will be difficult

The improved Western Conference provides new challenges
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) handles the ball against Memphis Grizzlies forward GG Jackson, front left, in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Memphis. (Brandon Dill/The Associated Press)

DENVER – The Denver Nuggets met coach Michael Malone's challenge not to let up after winning the franchise's first NBA title.

Nikola Jokic somehow got even better with another historic season that made him the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award for the third time in four years, according to BetMGM Sportsbook.

Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all stepped up their games this season, and Jamal Murray had another terrific year despite missing 23 games with various ailments.

Reggie Jackson took over as leader of the Nuggets' second unit following Bruce Brown's departure in free agency and he teamed with Chris Braun and Peyton Watson to provide steady – and sometimes spectacular – play during the non-Jokic minutes.

“I'm most proud of the fact that as reigning world champion we haven't been satisfied the whole year,” Malone said. “You gotta stay hungry because we have 29 teams right behind us trying to take what we have. And you need the requisite mindset, energy, focus, discipline, urgency, whatever you want to call it, and we had it.”

The Nuggets bumped their win total by four, finishing 57-25, tied with Oklahoma City for best in the West, but the Thunder won the tiebreaker, so Denver dropped from the top seed a year ago to No. 2.

Malone found a silver lining in the slip: this time around, the Nuggets already know who their first-round opponent will be when they begin their title defense Saturday night, something they didn't know until 48 hours before the playoffs began last year.

The team gathered at Jokic's home Tuesday night to drink a little rakija and watch the play-in game in New Orleans that the Los Angeles Lakers won 110-106, earning a first-round matchup against the reigning champs.

“There's a bull's-eye on our backs even more so now,” Malone said Wednesday. “ … That was our message today: Don't let anybody in these playoffs take what we worked so hard to get.”

Starting with LeBron James & Co.

Malone acknowledges how daunting a task it is to become the league's first back-to-back champion since Golden State in 2018.

“The Western Conference playoffs are going to be insane,” Malone said. “Forget seeding, the numbers in front of each team, throw them out the window. There's going to be eight really talented teams and there's a number of teams that I wouldn't be surprised to see coming out of the West because that's how deep and talented it is.”

The Nuggets swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last year, leaving James muttering about retirement. Denver won all three matchups this season and hasn't lost to LA since Dec. 16, 2022.

“Can we not mention that anymore?” Jokic asked with a laugh.

Amen, said his coach.

“Everyone keeps talking about how we've beaten them eight games in a row, and as I told our players today, that doesn't mean anything,” Malone said. “This is a different team, a different series and we know what we have in front of us. It's going to be a hell of a challenge to beat the Lakers again in the playoffs.”

It wasn't easy sweeping them last year, said Jokic.

And this time, he said, “there is no favorite. It can both ways.”

After coasting to the top seed in the West a year ago, the Nuggets found themselves in a dogfight with the Thunder and Timberwolves in a much tougher conference where nine of the top 10 teams won more games that they did last season.

Malone adopted the mantra that he'd rather have optimal health heading into the playoffs than the No. 1 seed, reasoning the Nuggets could beat anyone anywhere anytime regardless of seeding.

So, now they don't have the No. 1 seed but they're rested and ready for another grueling run. Malone sat plenty of his starters down the stretch and didn't rush Murray back from a sore knee that sidelined him for seven games.

Plus, they have this week to recuperate from the rigors of a season in which they took everyone's best shot and still finished 33-8 at home, tied with Oklahoma City for best home record in the West, and they swept their two-game season set with the Boston Celtics, the top seed out East.

“The fact that we didn't rest off last year, that we challenged ourselves to be even better,” is what he's proudest of, Malone said. “That's what you fear was going into this year. You win a championship, first in franchise history. Do you come up for air? Do you exhale? Do you relax?”

No, no and no.

Another thing that didn't bog them down was the MVP chatter that got to Jokic last year when he lost out to Joel Embiid before winning the more cherished Finals MVP trophy.

With Embiid getting hurt earlier this year, the steady Jokic became an overwhelming favorite for the MVP award ahead of Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dallas' Luka Doncic.

“I think I’m playing good basketball,” Jokic said in his usual understated manner. “The team is playing good basketball.”

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) drives to the basket against San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Antonio on April 12. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)
Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone shouts during in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on April 9 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

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