Back to health, Porter and Murray help Nuggets to next round

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, passes the ball as Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert defends during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER – Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic has his bandmates back together. They’re making up for lost time, too.

Paired again in the playoffs with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Jokic and his crew made quick work of short-handed Minnesota, closing out the Timberwolves with a 112-109 win in Game 5 of their first-round series Tuesday night. Denver, the No. 1 seed in the West, will face a Phoenix Suns team led by its own terrific trio — Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant — starting Saturday at Ball Arena.

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The trifecta of Murray, Porter and Jokic haven’t been plugged in at the same time for the playoffs since the NBA bubble in 2020. It was a magical time, too, in Florida, when the team advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to LeBron James and the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

It seems so long ago, with Murray missing the last two versions of the playoffs as he recovered from a torn left ACL and Porter sitting out last season’s postseason due to a balky back.

But they knew that once they were all reunited, they could be a powerful force.

They flashed that Tuesday by doing a little bit of everything. There was Murray, coming up big at crunch time on his way to 35 points. And Jokic, the reigning back-to-back NBA MVP who did his usual thing with 28 points, 17 boards and 12 assists. Porter, too, who despite struggling from the field found a way to contribute with defense — something he wasn't always known for — and by grabbing 10 rebounds. He also scored eight crucial points in the fourth quarter.

“It was good to be back in the playoffs and just be playing at a high level along with Jamal,” said Porter, who swished two big 3-pointers to help Denver fend off Anthony Edwards and the plucky Timberwolves. “It’s a good feeling.”

A year ago, guard/forward Bruce Brown was swept out of the postseason as a member — along with Durant — of the Brooklyn Nets. Brown did his homework as he looked for a new team last summer and liked the what he saw in the Mile High City. He and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have given the Nuggets better depth in these playoffs.

“I just knew they had a bunch of great players,” said Brown, who wore a cowboy hat as he walked out of the locker room after a game in which the Nuggets went 32 of 36 from the free throw line. “I’m very impressed (with this team).”

Next up, a Suns team that swept the Nuggets in the second round of the 2021 playoffs. But that was without Murray. This is a revamped Nuggets cast.

Phoenix has a new look, too, with Durant coming over from the Nets as part of blockbuster deal at the NBA’s trade deadline day.

This could be the start of something good. Despite Denver being the top seed — and Phoenix being No. 4 — the Nuggets feel overlooked.

"Nobody is out there picking us to win,” Nugget forward Jeff Green said. “We know we have what it takes to win. We've just got to keep showcasing.”

First, some time to rest — and celebrate.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone wants his players to appreciate what they just accomplished. Him, too, as he earned his 25th playoff win to break a tie with Doug Moe and become the Nuggets' winningest coach in the NBA playoffs.

“To win a series in the playoffs is hard,” Malone said. “So I'm really proud of our guys.”

The Suns and Nuggets split their season series 2-2. But it was hard to gain any sort of read into the series as Jokic sat out the last two, so he hasn't played the Suns with Durant.

Both teams put on quite a show on Christmas night, with Aaron Gordon turning in one of the most spectacular dunks of the season. It paved the way to a 128-125 overtime win where Jokic had 41 points, 15 boards and 15 assists.

“Probably, they're the favorites to win the championship," Jokic said. “It's going to be a big challenge for us.”

These are the types of moments Porter pondered when he was sidelined with the bad back last year.

“I wasn’t trying to look too far ahead, but to get back here and be competitive in a playoff series, man, it’s a great feeling,” Porter said. “Especially considering everything I’ve been through.”


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