If the Nuggets draw the Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Nikola Jokic said he would welcome it. Embrace it even.
Even in the aftermath of Monday’s streak-snapping loss at the Lakers, the Nuggets’ center wasn’t dissuaded at the prospect of facing the reigning champions in a rematch of last year’s conference finals.
“If it happens, it happens,” Jokic said. “Why not? If we want to win it, we need to play with the best. We are not going to try to fix anything.”
Monday’s 93-89 loss tightened the margin between the No. 3 Nuggets and No. 4 Clippers and momentarily nudged the Lakers into the No. 5 seed. All three teams have seven games remaining. Only a game separates the Lakers and the No. 7 Trail Blazers, who are currently slotted for the play-in tournament.
Jokic had a game-high 32 points but on just 12-of-28 shooting to pair with nine rebounds and five assists. Rather than blame a crucial offensive foul call against Facundo Campazzo that potentially cost the Nuggets three points amid Denver’s comeback, Jokic took the blame for the loss. The Nuggets fell to 1-2 on the season against the Lakers.
“I think the main problem, we didn’t shoot well,” he said. “Me first.”
The Lakers, even without LeBron James, proved they’re among the teams best-equipped to handle Jokic in a playoff series. New acquisition Andre Drummond started the game on Jokic (with little success), but the Lakers soon pivoted to former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, whose role had diminished since the Drummond addition.
“I think we all forget who Marc Gasol is,” Jokic said of the one-time NBA champion.
On several possessions, the Lakers tried the more physical option in forward Markieff Morris then showed a few possessions with Anthony Davis in the mix. The defensive potpourri worked in that Jokic wasn’t nearly as efficient as he’s been all season and played through foul trouble for most of the second half.
With the Nuggets down 14 points with 6:09 remaining, Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. carried the Nuggets to the verge of a gripping comeback. The Nuggets cut the margin to two points, twice, over the final 1:37 of regulation.
“We never quit,” Jokic said. “… We’re gonna try. We can fight. That’s something that nobody can take from us. I’m really proud of the guys.”
To challenge or not to challenge? Nuggets coach Michael Malone hadn’t seen the replay of Campazzo’s offensive foul on Anthony Davis by the time he met with media late Monday night. He said he considered challenging the call, but his assistants, who have to make a snap judgment after watching instant replay on an iPad, didn’t feel the call would get changed.
“Definitely considered it, but talked to our coaches behind the bench, and they said what the officials said, that Facu kind of took him out,” Malone said. “… Yes, was definitely considering challenging it, but that’s where I trust my coaches who are watching the replay right behind the bench to give me the thumbs up or thumbs down, and they felt from their perspective in watching it that it wouldn’t have been overturned. Big play … Those are the breaks.”
Ring night: The Lakers asked JaVale McGee whether he wanted them to send him his championship ring from last season’s title run in the Bubble or present it to him when the schedule aligned. McGee said he wanted fans to be there for his third championship ring.
Not only was it achieved under trying circumstances in Orlando, but McGee was the starting center for the Lakers last season, instead of coming off the bench as he did for his two Warriors championships.
“The ring feels like it might be a pound or two heavier, too,” he said. “They might’ve put some bigger diamonds in there or something, I don’t know.”
During the pre-game ceremony, Porter and Aaron Gordon hovered near McGee as he tried on his new jewelry.
“(There’s) definitely value seeing that,” McGee said. “Just knowing that it’s possible. I feel like a lot of people don’t strive to do things just because they’ve never seen it. The fact that you can see somebody from a neighborhood like you’ve been, or play in the league just like you, that won a ‘chip, you can look at it as, ‘OK, I can do this, too.’ That gives a lot of people hope.”
McGee, who had 10 points in 12 minutes Monday night and would likely play in a potential matchup vs the Lakers, has been a welcome addition to a Nuggets locker room that’s been beset by injuries.
“Being traded, I didn’t know what my role was going to be or how my minutes were going to be handed out, but I definitely came in (with) the mindset to be a leader and to just try to break off a little bit of my winning mindset off and championship mindset on this team,” he said.