NBA playoffs: 2021 NBA MVP Nikola Jokic unable to carry hobbled and weary Denver Nuggets past Phoenix Suns

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic won the 2021 NBA regular season MVP. (AP)

Nikola Jokic is listed at 6-11 and 284 pounds. But even his massive physical stature couldn’t prevent the Denver Nuggets from being blown out of the NBA playoffs.

The Nuggets’ 2021 season ended in disappointment after getting swept 4-0 by the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The heavy toll of the quick turnaround from the abbreviated season inside the Disney World bubble proved to be too much to overcome for Jokic and the Nuggets. The four teams that reached the conference finals — the L.A. Lakers, Nuggets, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics — in the bubble last year have all been eliminated. The Lakers, Heat, and Celtics were bounced in the first round.

While the Nuggets didn’t do as well as last season, many people still bet on them throughout the season. Taking a look at Colorado’s sports betting revenue, the state surpassed $100 million in total revenue. The total wagers made reached over $2 billion in just a year. Since the NBA season started, there has never been any month where the total handle was under $200 million.

Jokic more than did his part to keep the Nuggets competitive in the Suns series. He gave a valiant effort in Game 3 when he posted a historic triple-double with 32 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists. The only players in NBA history to put up a 30-20-10 playoff game were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. Despite Jokic’s monster game on a night he received the 2021 NBA MVP trophy, the Nuggets were no match for the well-balanced Suns.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone hoped his young team would show growth this season after losing a year ago to the Lakers in the conference finals. Instead, the Nuggets took a step back and bowed out one round earlier.

“We have had a tremendous season, tremendous. I said going into this year you can’t judge a season by the end result,” Malone told reporters after Game 3. “But the one thing I don’t want is for us just to go out quietly into that good night. I hope we show some real fight and resolve and force this series to go back to Phoenix for Game 5.”

Game 5 in Phoenix never materialized as the Suns put away the Nuggets, 125-118, in the elimination game in Denver. Phoenix is peaking at just the right time, as veteran point guard Chris Paul appears to have recovered from the shoulder injury that slowed him down in the first round. Paul made 14 of 19 shots for a game-high 37 points in Game 4. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are growing into their starring roles. Ayton’s ability to defend Jokic one-on-one allowed the Suns to stay home and not scramble as much defensively.

Jokic’s MVP season came to a screeching halt with under four minutes left in the third quarter of Game 4 as he was slapped with a Flagrant 2 foul on Cameron Payne, resulting in an automatic ejection. Jokic was seen apologizing to Payne before he left the court and also apologized during his postgame conference with reporters.

“I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy, maybe change the whistle a little bit, so I wanted to make a hard foul,” Jokic said. “Did I hit him, did I not hit him? We don’t know. So I say sorry if I did because I did not want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose.”

Malone defended Jokic’s hard foul and didn’t believe it warranted an automatic ejection.

“I just didn’t feel like it warranted a flagrant 2 ejection because he’s making a play on the ball,” Malone said. “There’s marginal contact to Cameron Payne’s nose I believe. So I was shocked. I’m still a little bit shocked that they called a flagrant 2 and ejected the MVP on such a play.”

Denver’s season unraveled way before Jokic’s ejection. It took a nasty turn on April 12 when second-leading scorer Jamal Murray landed awkwardly on his left leg and fell to the court in the final minute of a well-out-of-reach game at San Francisco’s Chase Center. The 24-year-old budding star was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Even though the Nuggets managed to finish third in the ultra-competitive West, the loss of Murray was significant. It took away Denver’s lethal pick-and-roll game with Murray and Jokic, and it created a massive power shortage offensively. In the postseason, the Nuggets sorely missed Murray’s playmaking skills at the point and his uncanny ability to make clutch shots down the stretch. Malone was forced to rely on backups Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Markus Howard, and the trio combined were not good enough to mirror what Murray normally generates on offense.

Jokic made history when he became the lowest draft pick (41st overall in 2014) to win league MVP, and the first traditional center to win the award since Tim Duncan in 2003.

But Jokic also picked up the dubious honor of becoming the first MVP to get swept in a playoff series since the league adopted the best-of-seven format for all rounds in 2003. Only three MVPs went on to win titles: Steph Curry in 2015, LeBron James in 2012 and 2013, and Duncan in ’03. Jokic is one of five MVPs still active in the league without a championship ring. The others are Derrick Rose (2011), Russell Westbrook (2017), James Harden (2018), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019, 2020).

Jokic may not be on the ringless list for too long, as he’s only scratching the surface of his professional basketball career and he’ll have more help next season. The Nuggets have a stable front office and Malone is a coach of the year candidate. Jokic is entering his prime years — he turned 26 in February — and should have his sidekick Murray back next season. Versatile forward Aaron Gordon will have another year under his belt in Malone’s system, and the sky is the limit for sharpshooter Michael Porter Jr. Porter made a significant leap from his first year to his second year, doubling his scoring average from 9.3 to 19.0 and improving in every meaningful statistical category. His accelerated growth will be a crucial part of the team’s championship aspirations.

“I’m not going to allow [the Suns series] to define the season,” Malone said. “Hopefully next year we can find a way to stay healthy and be better, and see where can go.”

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