Jamal Murray

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Nikola Jokic’s All-NBA first-team selection shows his meteoric rise

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Just four years ago, Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick still playing in the Adriatic League. Just three years ago, he was battling a struggling Jusuf Nurkic to be the Nuggets’ main center.

Yesterday, Jokic made the All-NBA first team.

Jokic has risen incredibly quickly. Before this season, he had never even been an All-Star.

That makes Jokic the first non-rookie in NBA history to make an All-NBA first team without a prior All-Star season (including ABA All-Stars).

The No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic is just the fourth second-rounder to make an All-NBA first team since the NBA-ABA merger. The others: DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol and Marc Price.

For most players not immediately deemed to hold first-round talent, it takes a while to build stature in the NBA. Jokic made the All-NBA first team in just his fourth season. That’s way sooner than Gasol (seventh season), Price (seventh season) and Jordan (eighth season):

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The Nuggets didn’t wait for this honor to make Jokic their franchise player. They gave him a near-max contract last summer, and by leading them into the second round of the playoffs, he triggered incentives to reach a max salary.

Denver has built a young supporting cast – mainly Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – to grow with Jokic. The Nuggets also signed veteran Paul Millsap, whose defense complements Jokic’s offensive-minded game.

So much is coming together so quickly for Denver, and Jokic’s honor is just the latest example.

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

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Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’ll stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.

Portland vs. Golden State: Five things to watch in the Western Conference Finals

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This Western Conference Finals matchup has some great storylines:

• Is Damian Lillard the real representative of Oakland? Lillard grew up not far from Oracle Arena — the place the Warriors are abandoning next year to move into a glitzy new building in San Francisco — and the Portland guard brings the kind of grit and toughness you’d expect from the city that also gave us Gary Payton. You can make the case Lillard is more Oakland that Curry/Thompson and their flashy game. He’s going to rep the city.

Stephen Curry vs. Seth Curry. Brother vs. brother for the first time in the Western Conference Finals will have Dell Curry flipping a coin.

The Western Conference Finals may feature more good storylines than close basketball. Give Portland credit, the team is not here by mistake — it just won Game 7 on the road in Denver. That’s impressive, and the Blazers have been the three seed in the West for two seasons in a row now. This is an outstanding basketball team.

This is also a terrible matchup for Portland.

Check out the latest ProBasketballTalk podcast where we break down this series in more detail, but here are five things to watch on the court when Portland travels to Golden State for Game 1.

1) Can Portland steal a game on the road before Kevin Durant returns? Stopping the Warriors offense when they don’t have Durant — which will be the case for at least Game 1 and likely Game 2 — is hard. They move the ball, cut hard off the ball, run a crafty pick-and-roll game, and just tear teams apart with Curry’s gravity as a shooter leading the way. Just ask the Rockets.

It gets even harder to stop them when they add the best player in the world to their rotation.

The Warriors offense is more predictable and runs a little slower with Durant, but knowing what is coming and being able to stop it are two different things. Durant will get his against anyone, and Klay Thompson or Curry can get going at any point as the defensive attention focuses on KD.

Lillard needs to go off in one of these first two and help Portland steal a game on the road in Oracle — get the work done early because things will only get harder. Lillard will have a slight advantage early in the series because Andre Iguodala likely will still start for Durant, and that gives Lillard a place to hide on defense and not work as hard (expect Moe Harkless to start on Curry). Warriors coach Steve Kerr will even want to cut back on Iguodala’s workload after the last series.

The Warriors will not play Durant in the first two games, and when he returns may depend on how threatened they feel in this series. If the Warriors hold home court in the first two, why play him and risk anything in Game 3?

When we see KD — and how much of the Hamptons’ five lineup we see — will tell you how concerned the Warriors are in this series.

2) It’s going to be a long series for Enes Kanter. For a guy who entered the playoffs with a terrible defensive reputation — especially in space against the pick-and-roll — Kanter has held up well on that end of the court. Give the man credit, his post and paint defense have improved and he has put them to good use.

He’s also gone against two teams that did not exploit his weaknesses enough. Oklahoma City just did not have the personnel to run a spread pick-and-roll. Denver did a better job and ran some Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll at Kanter, enough that Kanter was -28 in that series (in 245 minutes).

The Warriors will hunt Kanter. Relentlessly. Expect Kerr to go back to Andrew Bogut or Kevon Looney as the starting center (with the other getting minutes), and those guys will set high screens for Curry and force Kanter out into space to defend it. The Warriors will show all the mercy of Daenerys Targaryen at Kings’ Landing. The Warriors will work to play Kanter off the floor.

This likely will mean a lot more Zach Collins for Portland. Collins is a good and improving player, but this will be a big ask in a tough series, especially when the Warriors go small.

3) Can Portland slow the Warriors offense? This ties into the Kanter note above, and this is where going against Golden State is just a bad matchup for Portland.

The Trail Blazers’ base defense is a drop pick-and-roll coverage — where the center stays back to protect the paint rather than come out and challenge the ball handler coming off a pick — and doing it without switches. With the right personnel, that defense can be effective, it’s what Milwaukee did this year, the difference being the Bucks are loaded with long, athletic defenders all over the court.

Portland is not. Give Curry and Thompson a little space off those picks and things get ugly fast. And the Warriors’ guards will have space.

Portland also does not generate turnovers with their defense, they were 26th in the NBA scoring 15 points a game during the season off opponent turnovers, which is down to 13 a game in the playoffs. If you don’t get easy buckets against the Warriors things get harder.

Portland isn’t a bad defensive team (16th in the NBA during the season, middle of the pack) but this is just a tough matchup for them in terms of style and personnel. Things could get ugly.

4) Klay Thompson will try to make life difficult for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Unlike their opponents, when matchup up the Warriors have the advantage of a tall, smart, NBA All-Defensive Team level player in Thompson to throw at the great Portland guards.

Not that Thompson can stop Lillard or McCollum, whichever one he is lined up across from (expect him to start on Lillard but spend time on both). However, Thompson can make them work, make them a little less efficient. And the Warriors have the players to throw strong traps at Lillard to get the ball out of his hands while still having a good defender on McCollum. Especially once Durant returns to the lineup.

Portland will get buckets against the Warriors, they are too good not to — this is the third best offense in the NBA this past season. The concern for Portland is Thompson and Golden State can slow them down just enough they will not keep up with the Warriors’ offense.

5) How focused is Golden State? In the ultimate sign of respect, Kerr had the Warriors start the last series with the “Hamptons’ Five” on the floor. No messing around with a traditional center, the Warriors went straight to their best lineup because they realized the level of test in front of them. Houston had Golden State’s attention and respect from the opening tip and the Warriors’ rotations (and minutes load) showed that.

Golden State vs. Houston was seen as the real Western Conference Finals, the two best teams. The Warriors recognized the threat.

When the Warriors relax, when they don’t feel threatened, they can take their foot off the gas, not defend with energy, and get sloppy with the ball. They lose games because of a lack of focus. It happened early in the first round against a feisty Clippers team.

It could happen again against Portland, and the Trail Blazers are good enough to take advantage. The Warriors want to end this series and get as much rest as possible before the Finals start (on the road for them in Toronto or Milwaukee). The Warriors know they want to take care of business.

But will they? Or will the Warriors open the door just a little for the Trail Blazers and watch Lillard and company bust on through it?

It’s just one more thing to watch in this series.

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets think big in wake of stinging Game 7 loss

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DENVER (AP) — Things Nikola Jokic needs to improve on in the offseason: “Is there anything?” the Denver Nuggets big man joked.

Hard to find many glitches in his game right now.

By all measures, Jokic and the youthful Nuggets are ahead of schedule despite the sting of a Game 7 loss at home to Portland in the Western Conference semifinals. No one predicted the Nuggets being the two seed in the West this season. After all, they hadn’t even been to the playoffs since 2013.

And few projected the meteoric rise of Jokic, the 24-year-old with the awkward gait who sees the game with a point guard’s vision. The 7-footer averaged 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists in his first foray into the postseason.

“You’re supposed to be sad,” Jokic said of the season coming to a close. “But at the end of the day we had a good season.”

Soon, Jokic will head home to Serbia as he turns his focus from hoops to his horses. It’s his way of escaping from a Game 7 in which the Nuggets surrendered a 17-point lead to the Trail Blazers. This after knocking off San Antonio in seven games during the first round.

“Winning is really fun. We won one series against San Antonio that was really tough and fun,” said Jokic, who posted four triple-doubles during the playoffs. “We had a really good series against Portland. It was fun. But we didn’t win.”

One of the bigger decisions looming for Denver is what to do with Paul Millsap, who at 34 is the old-timer on a youthful Nuggets team. His future in the Mile High City could be uncertain given that he’s due $30 million should the team pick up his option. Asked if the Nuggets might be his best chance at winning an NBA title, the veteran power forward turned into a comedian.

“I could go to the Golden State Warriors,” he cracked Monday as the Nuggets cleaned out their lockers.

There’s always that. Only, Millsap envisions grand things for a Nuggets team that opened many eyes.

“That’s what makes this year so special – this team was doubted throughout the whole year. We couldn’t do this. We couldn’t do that. We’re not good enough. We’re too young. Blah. Blah. Blah,” Millsap said. “We’ve proved everybody wrong.”

The Nuggets boast a talented tandem in point guard Jamal Murray and Jokic. They also have a deep bench that was solid all season, before struggling at times throughout the playoffs.

Denver could be an attractive destination for some free agent. More specifically, a perimeter shooter. Denver was 2 of 19 from 3-point range in the finale against Portland.

“Not one team is perfect, but I think we have a great group of guys,” Jokic said. “I don’t know what we need more, because we were winning games. We were beating everybody. So I don’t know what else we can add. I really like the group of guys.”

 

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. medically cleared, hopes to play in Summer League

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The Denver Nuggets may be a team on the rise — they have young stars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray — but after their second-round playoff exit at the hands of Portland, they have some hard questions to answer if they want to stay on that trajectory. The biggest: Do they pick up the $30 million team option on Paul Millsap next season? Let him go and Denver only has about $17 million in cap room, are they sure they can get someone better in free agency at that price?

Another question: How can they add athleticism and depth to a full roster?

Enter Michael Porter Jr. He fell to them at No. 14 in last year’s draft and is the kind of athlete who can play the three or stretch four that the Nuggets could use off the bench. He also has had two back surgeries in the past two years and did not play a minute this season.

He is cleared and wants to get back on the court at Summer League, Porter told the Nuggets’ official website.

“Yea I can’t wait to get back out there. Nothing will compare to being out there for the first time in a real game. This team has a lot of weapons already, but I think I can be a versatile guy that does a lot of different things on the court and be a shot maker.”

Porter only played five games in college at Missouri following a microdiscectomy, and then needed another surgery last summer that sidelined him last summer. That’s why a guy with top-five talent in the draft slid to 14 (that and concerns about a “diva” attitude).

“It’s been a tough couple of years for me, even going back to Missouri,” Porter Jr. said. “It was really tough, but you just have positive energy and work your hardest. Looking back, it’s great to see how far I’ve come.”

Porter’s going to get his chance starting in Las Vegas. He’s a 6’11” player with handles who can score around the basket or step out on the floor — exactly the kind of guy Denver needs in its rotation. Now Porter needs to prove he can stay healthy and be that guy.