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Nikola Jokić reminds us all why he keeps winning MVPs, while the Nuggets remind us they’re still champions

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DENVER — There’s a classic scene in the classic movie “The Great White Hype” that serves as the perfect metaphor for what the Denver Nuggets are currently doing to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Damon Wayans’ character, a boxer, was hit with an overhand right hand by his challenger. He stumbled against the ropes, looked bewildered, composed himself and recited the best line of the movie.

“Are you trying to embarrass me on TV?!”

And then Wayans, as James “The Grim Reaper” Roper, beats up his opponent.

In the first two games of this series, Minnesota threw the overhand right and blurred the Denver Nuggets. Many thought the Nuggets were done. Unfortunately, all those first two games did was piss them off. The Nuggets looked at the Timberwolves, realized the Wolves were a real and worthy challenger, woke up, and the series has been a bloodbath ever since.

On the night he collected his third NBA MVP in front of the Ball Arena crowd, Jokić delivered a performance for the ages. It’s almost funny to think that this time last week, most were wondering whether Jokić should accept his award in a suit and tie instead of his uniform, on the off chance that the Nuggets would be out of the playoffs by Tuesday night.

After Tuesday night’s 112-97 victory in Game 5 over Minnesota in front of a crazy sellout crowd at Ball Arena, the Nuggets have come all the way back from an 0-2 deficit in the series to take a 3-2 lead. A win at Minnesota on Thursday night could send this series to a seventh game on Sunday.

Jokić’s numbers were ridiculous. Scoring 40 points on 22 shots from the field borders on the impossible. The impact Jokić had on almost every possession went beyond the numbers. With each of these performances, Jokić establishes himself as an all-time great. The Timberwolves did everything they could to slow Jokić down. They used Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Naz Reid and Kyle Anderson as primary defenders over the course of the game. They trapped him. They played him straight up. They tried to stunt him. Nothing worked.

The Nuggets have been playing James Roper for three games now. On offense, they dismantled Minnesota’s defense. In defense, they turned off the Timberwolves’ water. On Tuesday night, three-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokić scored 40 points on 22 shots, dished out 13 assists and dominated Rudy Gobert. Jokić’s big night gave the Nuggets a chance to close out the series on Thursday and advance to the Western Conference Finals.

“Obviously, we all saw what happened in Game 2,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I thought collectively we didn’t play like the reigning NBA champions. I don’t think we played with our usual swagger. We didn’t play with confidence. We didn’t play with any aggression. I think you have to give Minnesota a lot of credit because they had a lot to do with that.

“I thought Game 2 was a great reminder that we needed to get back to who we needed to be offensively and defensively.”

The past three games stand out because the Nuggets have made it look easy. They have been playing better and better each game, even with the 27-point victory in Game 3 being their largest margin of victory. But the context of this comeback makes what Denver is doing almost astonishing. The Nuggets looked outmatched both physically and mentally in the first two games of this series, losing the first two at home. They went to Minnesota trailing 2-0 in the series and on the surface, the chances of the Nuggets climbing out of that hole were slim.

This past week, Malone pointed out that the Nuggets climbed out of a 3-1 series of holes against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in 2020. While true, those rallies also have context, as those comebacks happened in the COVID bubble. The Nuggets didn’t have to win any real road games. Against the Jazz, Denver was without shooting guard Gary Harris for the first five games of that series. When he returned, the Nuggets had someone who could defend then-Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. That helped change the series.

Against the Clippers, the Nuggets were galvanized by LA’s Marcus Morris trying to mess with Paul Millsap. That rally was a lot better (Denver was a better team than the Jazz), but Nuggets still didn’t have to win a real road game.

Those comebacks shed a little light on what Denver is doing now against a very good opponent. The Timberwolves have one of the best defenses the league has seen in a decade; the Nuggets have shredded it in the last three games. The Timberwolves offense was big against the Phoenix Suns; the Nuggets have found a way to make Minnesota ineffective.

More importantly, the Nuggets defended with vigor. They’ve gotten to almost every loose ball. They’ve figured out where the shots are coming from and they’ve beaten the full-court pressure that had defined Minnesota’s defense in the first two games.

“It took a lot of effort to get back into this series, but it was an effort that our guys were committed to,” Malone said. “I think that effort was a big part of why we won tonight. We had 30 assists, so that says a lot about how well we moved the basketball. We got out in transition and got easy buckets there. Of course we are not satisfied. This was a great win in front of a great crowd.

“But now we have to go to Minnesota and try to close out the game, and that’s always the toughest game.”

Last week, Jokić said he could use a clone of himself to address Minnesota’s interior depth. On Tuesday night, Jokić put on a memorable and mesmerizing shotmaking clinic in the most important game of this series.

“Tonight was a good night for me, and it’s a night that I think I will remember all my life,” Jokić said. “I stood there and felt the love from the audience. This was an evening I will not forget.”

“Anytime Nikola gets it going like that, you have to take a step back and let him dictate how the game is going to go,” Jamal Murray said. “He had forty. He missed seven shots on the Defensive Player of the Year (Gobert), and it felt like he had fifty.”

The Nuggets team that has appeared in the last three games should be considered title favorites again if Jokić maintains this level of play and others catch up if their second and third options have mediocre games. Murray wasn’t great on Tuesday night and it hardly mattered. Michael Porter Jr. played one of his worst games of the postseason and it hardly mattered. In their place, Aaron Gordon was again a monster: he scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 16 big points and Christian Braun made a significant impact off the bench.

This is what the Nuggets do when they are at their best. They are defined by their qualitative depth and ability to find performances in hidden and even unlikely places. If they do close out the series on Thursday night, it will be clear that the first two games of the series were a stunning overhand decision to knock them against the ropes.

(Photo of Nikola Jokić: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)