PHOENIX — The Nuggets didn’t have time to dwell on Monday’s disappointing Game 1 playoff loss to the Suns. Not with an MVP to crown.
As news slowly trickled into the organization Tuesday, and the team prepared to surprise Nikola Jokic at a morning film session, Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s mood lifted. How could he ruminate on missed defensive assignments when Jokic was about to make NBA history?
“To just get the official news that Nikola had won the MVP, I think we all took some satisfaction in that and it gave us a little pep in our step,” Malone said. “Like, all right, you know what? ‘Yeah, we didn’t play well (in Game 1), we have to be better, but look what Nikola Jokic has been able to do.’”
Wearing a custom T-shirt adorned with low-hanging criticism about Jokic, Malone reveled in his star player’s accomplishment. His MVP was a testament to mental fortitude. Examining it in the context of this year’s truncated regular season would be an oversight, he said. Jokic’s months-long journey began in the Bubble last season, when the Nuggets made history in the form of two historic comebacks. Those 83 days in Orlando took a toll. Players weren’t afforded much time to recover, nor did they know when the next season would start.
“And to go home for two months, and he never took a day off, came back in game shape to start on Dec. 1, then he played in all 72,” Malone said. “We’re the only team still alive from the last four teams in Orlando. That is representative of Nikola’s toughness, mentally and physically, and the fact that he’s not easily willing to let go of the rope and give in when adversity strikes.
“That young man is exhausted, folks,” Malone said. “He won’t tell you, I’ll tell you. He is mentally and physically exhausted right now. And now we have the challenge of trying to find a way to fight through this next round.”
Jokic said he never allowed himself to think about the award. Once the regular season ended, his focus shifted to Denver’s first-round series against Portland. And even when he officially won MVP honors on Tuesday, he said he was still more concerned with winning a championship than he was with winning an individual honor. But after a season of dodging questions about the award, he finally indulged, to some degree, about winning it as a perpetual underdog.
“It’s something that I really … it’s really nice,” he said of his overlooked status. “Nobody believes in you. It’s proving people wrong. Surprising the world.”
Jokic’s party line never strays too far from Malone. Both know when to play the underdog card.
“I think the other silver lining (of the award), with all the injuries that we had, then everybody counts us out, just taking more satisfaction in continuing to prove people wrong, and I think we do that better than anybody,” Malone said. “Hopefully we can use that to springboard us a little bit (Wednesday) night.”
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