The Denver Nuggets have officially secured a bid for the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Despite a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, with the Portland Trail Blazers falling to the Atlanta Hawks, the Nuggets have clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive season.
In a moment that's Made to Chill, let's break down how Denver got to this point and what's to next to come.
MVP! MVP! MVP!
There are a handful of names worthy of consideration for this season's Most Valuable Player, but there's one that stands above the rest: Nikola Jokic.
In NBA.com's Scott Rafferty's latest MVP Ladder, he had Jokic at the top and it's hard to disagree with that result. Averaging a career-high in every major statistical category while leading the Nuggets to yet another playoff birth, Jokic has been unstoppable. Posting 26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting an efficient 56.8 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from 3 and 86.0 percent from the free-throw line, Jokic is leaving an impact on the season-long leaderboards.
He ranks third in total points, fifth in total rebounds, second in total assists and seventh in total steals, and those are just traditional numbers. If you want to get more in the weeds with some analytics, Jokic has those categories covered as well, ranking first (!) in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player.
Even more impressively, in a season that includes a jam-packed shortened schedule, coronavirus hurdles and a number of devastating injuries, Jokic has somehow managed to suit up for all 64 of Denver's games.
In leading the Nuggets to their third-consecutive playoff birth, Jokic is well on his way to becoming the league MVP. But will he be able to take his team one step further than they got last season, reaching the NBA Finals?
The rise of a new No. 2
Back on April 12, Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray suffered what appeared to be a brutal knee injury in the team's loss to the Golden State Warriors. The very next day, the injury would be identified as a torn left ACL, requiring season-ending surgery.
Murray was arguably Denver's most important player during last season's playoff run to the Western Conference Finals. It was more than just the 50-point games, it was the way he could give the Nuggets a bucket any time they needed, especially during crunchtime. Even with how incredible Denver looked since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, Murray's injury was seen to be a nail in the coffin on their title hopes.
If the past 10 games are any indication, that assumption couldn't be further from the truth.
Going 9-1 in the 10 games since Murray's injury, the Nuggets somehow continue to churn out wins with different players stepping up. And while, of course, the MVP frontrunner Jokic has played a huge role in that success, there's another player that has stepped into another stratosphere to become the team's clear No. 2 option.
Michael Porter Jr.
The 22-year-old is hitting his stride at just the right time, averaging 25.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.4 blocks since Murray's injury. His efficiency is uncanny, shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 51.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Over those 10 games, he's scored 20 or more points in all but one contest. He has four games with 25-plus points and two games with 30-plus points, solidifying himself as another go-to option with the playoffs just around the corner.
Don't forget: Porter was once the No. 1 player in his high school class and the consensus choice to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft until a back injury derailed that momentum, also forcing him to miss his entire rookie season.
Just two seasons later, we're watching Porter flourish as the player he was always projected to be.
First NBA Finals appearance on the horizon?
The Nuggets have been to one championship round in their franchise's history, but it was all the way back in 1976 when they were still a part of the American Basketball Association (ABA).
In fact, since that ABA Finals appearance - in which Denver fell to the New York Nets - the franchise has only reached the Conference Finals four times, with one being last year's appearance in a five-game loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Prior to this Jokic-Mike Malone era, the Nuggets had grown accustomed to losing in the first round of the playoffs.
From 2003 to 2013, Denver made 10-consecutive playoff appearances, losing in the first round in all but just one season (where they fell in the Conference Finals in 2009). It then had a five-year playoff drought from 2013 to 2018, with three of those seasons being under head coach Malone with Jokic at the helm.
But under that tandem, the Nuggets have improved their record and end-of-season result each and every year. Two seasons ago, they lost in seven games to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Conference Semifinals. Last year, it was the Conference Finals against the Lakers.
Will they continue that trend of growth this season and take things a step further in reaching the NBA Finals?
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