Nuggets demanding respect with first-ever NBA Finals berth two wins away

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Michael Malone is fed up.

He’s tired of the Denver Nuggets being underrated despite finishing with the best record in the Western Conference (53-29).

He’s upset that members of the media are seeing two-time MVP Nikola Jokic for the first time.

After the Nuggets took a 2-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, he was asked if his team had a chip on its shoulder, and he didn’t hold back.

“You win the first game of the [Western Conference Finals]and all he talked about was the Lakers,” Malone said after the Nuggets’ 108-103 win Thursday. “Let’s be honest, that was the national narrative. [It] it was, hey, the lakers are good. They are losing 1-0, but they have discovered something.

“No one talked about Nikola. He just had a historic performance. Now he has 13 triple-doubles, third all-time. What he’s doing is incredible. But the narrative wasn’t about the Nuggets, the narrative wasn’t about Nikola. The narrative was about the Lakers and their adjustments.

“You put that in your pipe, smoke it and come back, and you know what, we’re up, 2-0.”

That’s exactly what the Nuggets did, beating the Lakers in Game 2, 108-103. Malone is tired of the disrespect. His frustration has been building over the past seven years at the helm of the Nuggets.

In 2020, the Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 series deficits in the same postseason against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers to reach the Conference Finals. But many members of the Nuggets felt that instead of getting the credit they deserved, all the attention was focused on the collapses of other teams.

Then this postseason, the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns were -140 favorites to beat the top-seeded Nuggets in their second round, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. And when the Nuggets prevailed anyway in six games, much of the attention was focused on the Suns’ failure rather than the Nuggets’ success.

Now, the series against the Lakers only heightens the Nuggets’ feelings of being overlooked.

The Lakers, 17-time champions, are the darlings of the NBA. They have the face of the league on their roster in LeBron James. And they’re arguably under the biggest microscope of any team in the league, with a who’s who of celebrities sitting courtside on any given night.

To put things into perspective: Entering this season, the Lakers were slated to have 27 nationally televised games on ESPN, TNT or ABC, while the Nuggets had 16.

Bruce Brown didn’t hesitate when asked why he thinks the Nuggets are underrated. “Nobody’s looking at us,” he said. “This is because.”

But now that they’re playing the Lakers, all eyes are on the Nuggets, and many are witnessing Jokic’s greatness for the first time.

After Game 1, ESPN’s Lisa Salters said of Jokic, “I’ve never seen him play before. I haven’t played a game here in Denver. It’s been at least 10 years. Maybe I had a game of them on the bubble. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to see him play.”

There are several similar examples in recent days.

ESPN analyst and former NBA player and coach Mark Jackson forgot to put Nikola Jokic on his MVP ballot, which he acknowledged was an “absolute mistake.” (Of the 100 members of the media who voted for the award, Jackson was the only one who did not include Jokic in his top five.)

On ESPN’s national radio show, Keyshawn, JWill and Max Show, after Jay Williams said Jokic is proving to be “the best player in basketball,” Keyshawn Johnson admitted he’s been “forced to” watch the Nuggets “because they were playing.” the Lakers,” adding that “usually when the Denver Nuggets play, it’s a drive-by for me.”

And even after the Nuggets led by as many as 21 points in Game 1 of the conference finals, Shaquille O’Neal told TNT that the Lakers would win Game 2: “Guarantee it. Guarantee it!” he shouted, emphatically.

You can imagine Malone fuming when he hears all this.

It may be why, completely unprompted, he talked about Jokic in his postgame press conference after Game 2, saying, “Joker, for those who don’t know him, now has 13 triples— playoff doubles.”

Similarly, Malone’s pregame press conference was spicy.

He made a shot at the national discourse after Game 1 was all about Rui Hachimura helping to hold Jokic to three points, two rebounds and two assists in the fourth quarter, instead of Jokic finishing with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists. Nuggets win 132-126.

Before Game 2, Malone said this is the first time he’s up 1-0 in a series, and it’s “over in everyone’s eyes because they put Rui on Nikola Jokic for six possessions.”

Interestingly, the man who seems completely unfazed by all this talk is the man in the middle.

When Jokic was asked Thursday how he felt about his team flying under the radar and people acknowledging they were now watching him, he was baffled.

“It’s been like this since we got to the playoffs,” said Jokic, who had 23 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists in Game 2. “So, it’s nothing new for us. To be honest, I like it. We don’t care. . Whatever.

“…Even on the bubble when we beat Utah, they were talking about how they got the lead. When we beat the Clippers, how they got the lead. Nobody talks about how we won the game. It’s normal for us. Honestly, I don’t care at all.”

It was interesting to hear Jokic say he liked being in the shadows. When asked to explain why he feels this way, he said he had been focusing on the task at hand, not the fight around him.

“We don’t need the media attention,” Jokic said. “… We’re going to go out and try to win the game. We’re going to be quiet. We’re not going to talk about it. Maybe some will, but I think [not] Generally,

There is one thing that is not debatable.

The Nuggets are now two wins away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in their 55-year franchise history.

They are forcing the world to look at them. To appreciate Jokic. To take note of his immense talent.

They know that if they win six more games, the whole narrative changes. And meanwhile, they use all the so-called disrespect as motivation.

“Outside noise is outside noise,” Jamal Murray said. “We’re the Denver Nuggets; we’re used to it. Even when we win, they talk about the other team.

“… Same, same. It fuels us a little more, and it’ll be sweeter when we win the chip.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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