LOS ANGELES -- Nikola Jokic sat in front of two microphones, the face of his gold watch reflecting from the spotlights in the crowded room, as he searched through his internal lexicon for the perfect word. When he talks too fast, he had just admitted, his English suffers. He rattled off a list of teammates -- Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown -- whose unselfishness had just led the Denver Nuggets to within a single win of the first NBA Finals berth in franchise history.
"Poison?" Jokic said quizzically.
He quickly landed on the word he was looking for, "contagious," with some gentle urging from a few media members. When you think about it, however, "poison" might be the optimal word to describe what the Nuggets have done to opponents this offseason. They infect you, find your weaknesses and attack the compromised areas relentlessly until the job is done.
A master of underselling his own astonishing abilities, Jokic may be a closet wordsmith to boot.
During the first two games of the Western Conference finals, Denver coach Michael Malone loved giving the hard pitch like a down-on-his-luck salesman desperately seeking a mortgage-saving score: The Lakers get all the attention, nobody cares about us. That's both true and false to varying extents, but Malone and select members of the team -- Jokic included -- have fully bought in.
Even with the consensus being that the Nuggets were the better team after taking a 2-0 lead, the majority of analysts picked the Lakers to win Game 3, some in blowout fashion. As they've been doing all season, either in reality or in their minds, the Nuggets proved everyone wrong by pulling out a methodical 119-108 victory on Saturday to take a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead in the series.
With most expecting the Nuggets to absorb an early haymaker from the Lakers, instead Denver delivered an uppercut of its own in the form of Murray and his 17-point first-quarter en route to a mind-bending 30 in the first half.
"We came out aggressive, with the mindset this is a business trip," Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said after the game. "We wanted to come in and apply the pressure and not let them apply the pressure to us first. We wanted to throw the first punch, and we came out strong in the first quarter. We did exactly what we wanted to do."
The Lakers came back, as this team has proven that it would, and when Jokic went out of the game with four fouls with seven minutes left in the third quarter, it was time for L.A. to make its move.
Not only this season, but pretty much since Jokic has taken over as the Nuggets' primary offensive force, the team has struggled mightily with him on the bench. On Saturday the Nuggets not only stayed afloat but also maintained the lead thanks to some tremendous minutes from Caldwell-Pope, Jeff Green and other role players. That set the stage for Jokic's return -- a 15-point fourth quarter to seal the game.
"I thought KCP was unbelievable during that stretch," Malone said of the third quarter. "Made big plays, made big shots. Our defense stepped up to hold water while Nikola was out. Nikola, you can't keep him down for a whole game."
It was the type of win that absolutely demoralizes an opposing fanbase. The Lakers had multiple opportunities to make a move, the crowd was teeming with anticipation. But they were rebuffed at every turn by a deep, confident, spectacularly cohesive Nuggets group.
If there was any doubt about the Nuggets being favorites to win the NBA title, they eliminated all of it with the Game 3 win.
Which poses an interesting dilemma, because, as we know, at least a fraction of the Nuggets' power is supplied by the Rocky Mountain-sized chip that resides squarely on their collective shoulder. How can you use the "nobody believes in us" ethos if, either suddenly or gradually, everyone believes in you?
That will be the challenge for Denver for the rest of the postseason. While no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time -- LeBron James -- is sitting on the opposing sideline. Malone said that the natural inclination is to "take a deep breath, relax," and that's what the Nuggets need to resist.
"I'm not gonna say that I'm scared," Jokic said after Game 3. "But I'm worried, because they have LeBron on the other side and he's capable of doing everything."
However, at this point, it's going to take a superhuman effort to get the Nuggets' poison out of the Lakers' veins. And, like it or not, Denver is going to have to cope with being the favorite -- not only in this series, but almost certainly against whichever of the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat comes out of the Eastern Conference.
The thing about shoulder chips is that they're plentiful. Despite Jokic winning two NBA MVPs, Malone still says he's underrated. Despite the Nuggets being the betting favorites to win the championship, they still think nobody takes them seriously. Despite Jamal Murray going scorched earth on the Lakers, the comparisons to "Bubble Jamal" still irk Denver.
It would be very difficult for an NBA fan to watch Game 3, after a full season of winning and accolades, and not be persuaded that the Nuggets are the best team remaining. But even with the shifting tide, you can bet that the "overlooked Denver" narrative will persevere -- somehow, some way -- even if they're shouting down naysayers while hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
"We know it's coming and we've just gotta stay locked in and know that we can do it. And we have full belief in that," Murray said after Game 3. "We got five more [wins] to go."