Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone quoted former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich after watching his team level their Western Conference semifinal series on Sunday, saying: "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

The Nuggets levelled their series with the Minnesota Timberwolves at 2-2 with a dominant road performance, triumphing 115-107 at Target Center.

Denver never trailed after taking a 23-22 lead on Aaron Gordon's three-point play near the end of the first quarter, stretching their advantage to as many as 18 points early in the third.

While Minnesota pulled within seven with just under two minutes remaining, they failed to make another basket as the Nuggets levelled things up ahead of Game 5 on Tuesday.

Gordon amassed 27 points on 11-of-12 shooting while NBA MVP Nikola Jokic had 35 points, with 16 of those coming in the fourth quarter.

The reigning champions are now slight favourites to reach the NBA Finals as they prepare to host Game 5, leading Malone to hail their mentality. 

"What I found is Rudy T is right, man, 'never underestimate the heart of a champion'," Malone said, referring to Tomjanovich's infamous quote in the aftermath of Houston's 1995 championship.

"They were quick to write us off, but these guys, we won a championship a year ago. We went into Miami [in the Finals], won two games in a row. 

"This team has been tested time and time again, and we found a way to solve whatever's been thrown at us.

"This series is a long way from being over. We're not celebrating. It's 2-2, but what I found about our group is that they do believe in themselves. 

"More importantly, they believe in the man next to them. We have a group that is acting as you would hope a championship team would act."

Gordon echoed his coach's sentiments, saying: "I love it when people count us out.

"A lot of these guys have been counted out before in their careers. They've been the underdogs or the dark horse in their careers before. 

"So, I don't think it was anything new to the individuals. It was new to our collective, but I liked the challenge, and I'm glad we accepted it and put ourselves in a good position with home court."

Michael Malone refused to blame a bizarre equipment mix-up for his Denver Nuggets' Game 4 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday.

Denver headed into the game with a 3-0 first-round series lead, but ahead of a Game 4 where they could have sealed their progression, some Nuggets players warmed up in flip-flops after a delay in their shoes arriving to the arena.

Following the equipment mix-up, the Nuggets fell to a 119-108 loss as LeBron James led the way for the Lakers with 30 points to keep his team in the series.

Despite the pre-match muddle, Malone says to blame that for the ensuing defeat would be a "reach".

"Is it ideal? No," Malone told reporters. "But hopefully we can figure that out and make sure it never happens again.

"If you want to dig into stuff and say, 'well, we lost because for some strange reason our players didn't have their shoes when they got here for their normal warm-ups, that we had guys out there shooting around with flip-flops'. Is it ideal? No. But I'm not an excuse guy. And I'm not going to point to the reason we got our butts kicked in the paint because shoes weren't here."

Denver had been forced to overturn double-digit deficits in all three of their series victories prior to Saturday's defeat, and Michael Porter Jr. again lamented his team's slow start while crediting the Lakers.

"We talked about getting off to a better start," Porter Jr. explained. "It takes a lot of energy to come back from these double-digit leads, down 20, down 15, whatever it is.

"Tonight they [Lakers] did a good job of sustaining it. Whenever we got within 10 or eight, it seemed like they made a 3-pointer or made a big shot. So credit to them."

Michael Malone believes the Denver Nuggets face "a hell of a series" against the Los Angeles Lakers, with LeBron James pledging to improve after his team were beaten in Game 1 on Saturday.

The Nuggets and the Lakers faced off in the Western Conference finals last season, and they were reunited for Game 1 of this year's first-round series at Ball Arena on Saturday.

It's advantage Denver after Nikola Jokic had 32 points and 12 rebounds in a 114-103 win over Los Angeles, their ninth victory in the teams' last nine head-to-head meetings.

The reigning NBA champions were made to work for their success, though, having gone into halftime down 60-57, with James scoring 19 first-half points. 

However, the NBA's all-time leading scorer was limited to just eight second-half points and didn't attempt a shot in the fourth quarter until the final 80 seconds.

Though the Lakers ultimately ran out of steam, Denver coach Malone expects another tough test when the teams reconvene for Game 2 on Monday.

"We're not going anywhere," Malone said. "This is the playoffs. No team in the playoffs, if you get down 12 early, you're not going to just take your ball and go home. 

"We still have plenty of fight left in us and we know that we are better than what we were playing early.

"That's a good team over there. They came into the playoffs playing extremely well, and they showed it. 

"LeBron was on course, I thought he was about to have 50 points tonight, the way he was playing and shooting the ball.

"We've got to watch the film to see what we can do better. This is going to be a hell of a series."

James' 27 points came in support of Anthony Davis, who had 32, while the Nuggets had two other players match Jokic's double-double, with Jamal Murray tallying 22 points and 10 assists and Aaron Gordon adding 12 points and 11 rebounds.

James, who is appearing in the playoffs for the 17th time in 21 seasons, says the team won't get too low with plenty of time remaining to rescue the series. 

"I thought we played some good ball tonight, just could have been better," he said. "You don't have much room for error versus Denver, especially on their home floor.

"They're just a team that's been through everything. Obviously, they're the defending champions, so you've got to execute, you've got to make shots, you've got to defend.

"I don't ever get into the 'here we go again' mindset. It's one game, they protected their home court. We have another opportunity on Monday to come back and be better."

Nikola Jokic said he is not the only player deserving of MVP honours after strengthening his case by putting up 41 points in the Denver Nuggets' crucial victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.  

Jokic is favoured to see off competition from Luka Doncic and be crowned MVP for the third time in four seasons, and he did his hopes no harm in what was arguably the game of the year to date.

The Timberwolves entered the game top of the West due to holding the tiebreaker over the Nuggets, but the reigning NBA champions leapfrogged them with a crucial 116-107 win at Ball Arena.

Jokic added 11 rebounds and seven assists in the 20th 40-point game of his career, shooting 16-of-20 from the field as a big second half carried the Nuggets home in front of a capacity crowd.

Asked what the performance meant for his hopes of landing the league's top individual prize, Jokic said: "I think I'm playing good basketball. The team is playing good basketball,

"I think there is a lot of guys playing really good basketball in the league and a couple of guys deserve to have that award."

The 2021 and 2022 MVP instead preferred to focus on the role of Denver's closers Peyton Watson and Christian Braun, saying: "They were great. 

"P-Wat, it seemed like he was all over the place. He was just full of energy. C.B., with that sequence of two minutes, it was really amazing. 

"I was happy for those guys. They don't get enough credit for what they are doing on the floor, and they're helping us energy-wise, effort-wise. We need them."

Jokic's huge performance came despite him being guarded by the league's top defender in Rudy Gobert, leading Denver coach Michael Malone to describe the Serbian as unstoppable.

"Nikola always embraces the physicality. He never shies away from it," Malone said. "Rudy Gobert is going to be a Hall of Fame player one day. 

"Rudy Gobert is going to be regarded as one of the best defenders of his generation. It just speaks to how great Nikola is. I don't think anybody in the NBA can guard Nikola one-on-one."

Minnesota now need the Nuggets to slip up in one of their final two games, at the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies, to allow them back into the race for the top seed. 

Guard Anthony Edwards, who put up a team-high 25 points, said: "We knew what this game was going to determine.

"If we won it, we knew we were going to possibly be the number one seed. If we lost it, we knew they'd possibly be the number one seed. 

"I think we cared before but now that we lost, we can't do nothing about it."

Michael Malone was left to ponder what life was like for the Denver Nuggets prior to Nikola Jokic's presence after another star turn from the two-time NBA MVP.

Having sat out Wednesday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jokic returned to action in style in a 120-108 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Jokic finished with 27 points, 22 rebounds and 12 assists for his 15th triple-double of the season.

"What life was like before Nikola got here," Denver coach Malone asked afterwards.

"I think people don't do that. They're like 'It's always been like this.' No it wasn’t. No it wasn't. Don't do that. Don't lie to yourself.

“We have been spoilt and I'm sure some of us do find ourselves maybe taking it for granted.

"But just remind yourself that not many guys like Nikola Jokic walk through those doors. Appreciate every opportunity that you have to watch him play."

Friday's game was the Nuggets' 50th of the season, with the reigning NBA champions recording a 34-16 record, exactly the same as they had at the same stage last season.

"I like that we are still playing with the same effort," said Jokic, who is averaging 26.3 points per game.

"It's not like we won a championship and now we're going to go easy. I like that we still want to compete and we still want to be better."

The Denver Nuggets "played like a tired team" in their defeat to the New York Knicks, said head coach Michael Malone.

Denver – who sit third in the Western Conference – were beaten 122-84 in Thursday's road game.

Nikola Jokic had 31 points and 11 rebounds, but the Nuggets could not extend their three-game winning streak.

Thursday's game was the Nuggets' second in the space of 48 hours, and Malone believes the fatigue showed.

"We played like a very tired team," Malone said.

"I thought it was a very disappointing ending to the road trip.

"You never want to get blown out, which is what happened tonight. And we live to fight another day.

"All of our focus right now is getting home, getting some rest tomorrow, and thankful that the NBA gave us a matinee game [against the Philadelphia 76ers] on Saturday."

Jokic took a poke to the eye from Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo during the second quarter.

"It was painful of course, but hopefully it's going to be OK," said the two-time MVP, who added: "[The Knicks] were just more aggressive. One team basically on the floor today. We were not there today."

OG Anunoby led the Knicks with 26 points, and Malone labelled the small forward as "outstanding".

"There's a reason the crowd was chanting 'OG.' He was outstanding," Malone said.

"He brings defense. He brings offense. He brings toughness. He brings physicality.

"He and the rest of the guys in the New York Knicks uniforms tonight, they were terrific from beginning to end."

The Knicks, who are fourth in the Eastern Conference, have won their last five games.

Nikola Jokic displayed just why he is such a stellar talent as the Denver Nuggets defeated the Washington Wizards, so says Michael Malone.

Jokic scored a season-high 42 points, adding 12 rebounds and eight assists, as the Nuggets won 113-104 on Sunday.

It marked Jokic's highest points tally since he scored 46 against the New Orleans Pelicans in June 2022.

The Nuggets are now 30-14 for the season and are third in the Western Conference, and coach Malone was effusive in his praise for the 28-year-old.

"Nikola was phenomenal tonight from beginning to end," Malone said.

"He continues to illustrate why he's the player that he is."

Even though the Nuggets were playing on the road, there were chants of "MVP" from the crowd as Jokic sank his final free throws of the game.

"That's unique," Malone said.

"It doesn't happen very often, so I think it's just recognising greatness.

"Here's a guy who was a two-time MVP as a second-round draft pick that brought a franchise its first world championship in history, and he's a Finals MVP as well."

Despite having lost their last four games in a row, Malone believes the Wizards provided a stern challenge to his team.

He said: "That’s what happens when you're the reigning world champs.

"You have to be up for those games because you know you're going to be getting everybody's best."

Nikola Jokic honoured the memory of his former mentor Dejan Milojevic by starring in the Denver Nuggets' crucial road win over the Boston Celtics on Friday, says coach Michael Malone.

Golden State Warriors assistant coach Milojevic died at the age of 46 on Wednesday after suffering a heart attack, prompting an outpouring of emotion across the NBA.

Before his arrival in San Francisco, Milojevic was credited with kickstarting the career of two-time NBA MVP Jokic when the duo worked together at Belgrade-based team KK Mega Basket.

On Friday, Denver had the daunting task of attempting to halt Boston's 20-0 run at TD Garden this season, and Jokic's 34 points helped them on their way to a huge win over a fellow championship contender.  

Jokic also added 12 rebounds and nine assists while Jamal Murray finished with 35 points as the defending champions improved to 29-14.

Speaking after the game, Nuggets coach Malone expressed pride in Jokic and said the events of recent days made his dominant performance all the more impressive.

"As I mentioned to our team after the game, I couldn't be more proud of Nikola for playing the way he played with the tragic passing of Deki," Malone said. 

"That's what you do, though. That's why I'm proud of Nikola. You just lost somebody that you love and you care about that meant a lot to you, that was a mentor and a coach to you.

"So go honour him. You know what I mean? Nikola went out there, he honoured Deki's memory and his legacy by playing at the level he played at.

"It's not easy to do with a heavy heart, but Nikola is a special person, obviously. It was incredible to watch him play with that heavy heart, when you consider who we were playing and you add everything else to the mix.

"That's why Nikola is the best player in the world."

The Celtics found themselves 98-95 up with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but they missed eight of their final nine shots – four of them from Jayson Tatum – to allow the Nuggets back in.

Malone feels the victory amounted to a statement from his team, saying: "You're playing against the best team in the NBA. It was like a playoff game. 

"I know this is only Game 43, 44, whatever it is, but it was kind of like a playoff game, a playoff atmosphere and two really good teams. 

"They were in the Finals two years ago. They were in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They have high hopes, as do we.

"It was a game that we were all in. We put all of our chips in and we were lucky enough to get the outcome that we desired."

Michael Malone revelled in another brilliant display from Nikola Jokic after the Denver Nuggets talisman starred against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Jokic finished with 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds to record his 10th career triple-double against the Pelicans in a 125-113 home victory for Denver on Friday.

The highlight of the two-time MVP's performance was a blind, behind-the-back, over-the-head pass towards the end of the first half, which Aaron Gordon latched onto at the rim.

And coach Malone saw echoes of NBA great Magic Johnson in Jokic's moment of brilliance.

He said: "I didn't imagine the behind-the-back, over-the-head pass.

"When you’re a young kid watching NBA basketball, that's Magic Johnson, that's 'Pistol' Pete Maravich, the guys that just had this pizazz to their game.

"Nikola can beat you a lot of ways and that was definitely one of the best passes I've seen him make."

Jokic explained: "I just saw him for a blink of an eye, and I just wanted to pass to him as soon as I can.

"Because he's open in that moment, not a moment after that. So, that was the quickest way to pass him the ball."

Reflecting on the Nuggets' performance as they bounced back from a defeat to the Utah Jazz, Jokic, who has now had 12 triple-doubles this season and is shooting 79.3 percent over his last eight games, added: "We played a little bit faster, I think.

"We were the ones who were aggressive. We pushed the pace. I think that was the difference."

Zion Williamson scored 30 points for the Pelicans, but New Orleans was left to lament a poor start in which the Nuggets scored 37 points.

Pelicans coach Willie Green said: "They got off to an early start in this building.

"They had a 37-point first quarter to 25, now it's an uphill battle the rest of the game. That's something they do well.

"They get off to early starts and then they played with a lead. We've got to be better starting a game."

The Nuggets (27-13) are third in the Western Conference, four spots ahead of the Pelicans (23-16). Denver has a 16-4 record at home going into their next game against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday.

Nikola Jokic always knew he was going to make the dramatic buzzer-beating three-pointer which guided the Denver Nuggets to a stunning win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday.

The Warriors were on the verge of beating the Nuggets for the first time in nearly two years at Chase Center, only for the defending NBA champions to finish with a 25-4 run for a 130-127 win.

The clinching shot came from Jokic with just 3.6 seconds remaining, the two-time MVP hitting an improbable three-pointer from just inside half-court, which sailed over the outstretched arms of Warriors centre Kevon Looney and in.

Jokic had tied the game on a short jumper just 23 seconds earlier, and he finished with 34 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.

Speaking about his winner after the game, Jokic said: "That was the last option with that play. I just took a shot. I think those shots are the easiest shots to take. You don't have any other options. 

"So actually, when I felt it, I thought, 'oh, I'm going to bank this.' You can see the flight of the ball, and I just knew I was going to bank it."

Denver's win was their eighth in nine games, lifting them to 25-11 and inflicting the Warriors' third loss in the space of four games.

Jokic's game-winning shot came after Jamal Murray made a steal from Stephen Curry with just four seconds on the clock, leading Denver coach Michael Malone to hail his team for their ability to compete physically. 

"They came out in the third quarter very aggressive, and we didn't match that. They had us on our heels," Malone said.

"I said, 'okay, enough is enough. Our backs are against the ball. We have to go now,' and then we became the aggressor. 

"We became the team getting stops, pushing, attacking, we became more physical.

"The most aggressive team is going to win. I felt like when the game was on the line, we were the more aggressive team."

Regarding Jokic's buzzer beater, Malone said the credit belonged entirely to the 2021 and 2022 MVP, adding: "I wish I could tell you [that's how I drew it up]. But that's just a great player making a great play.

"Nikola lives for those moments. It's great and joyful to watch a player of his talent go out there and make the plays that he makes."

The Oklahoma City Thunder condemned the Denver Nuggets to their heaviest defeat of the season but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander still says the defending NBA champions are "the level that you want to get to".

The Nuggets fell to their second defeat by Thunder in the space of two weeks and ended their six-match winning streak after a 119-93 defeat in Denver.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 40 points – his fifth 40-plus game this season and four shy of his career-best set last season – for the Thunder and Chet Holmgren added 24.

A pair of defeats to Oklahoma are Denver's only two in their last 11 games, although Gilgeous-Alexander was quick to credit the Nuggets.

"It's not a fluke they won the championship," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "They're a really good team and we know that every night we play them.

"You get out of bed to play against teams like that knowing they're at the level that you want to get to."

Gilgeous-Alexander also went 14 of 20 from the field and made all 10 of his free-throw attempts.

"He was just cruising. He let the game come to him," Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. "It never seemed like he was forcing. Played the right way throughout, made the right passes, and kept them honest.

"It's kind of routine at this point but he played a great game."

Holmgren scored the Thunder's first 10 points of the game and finished with 24, hitting all four attempts from three-point range, and had two blocks.

"He's a threat on the court in so many ways and him drawing that attention only makes it easier for the guys around him, including myself," Gilgeous-Alexander said of his Oklahoma teammate.

Nikola Jokic had 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for the Nuggets, who were without Aaron Gordon for a second straight game due to hand and facial injuries sustained from dog bites.

Yet Jokic also committed seven turnovers, two shy of his career high.

"You've got to be clean with the ball, you can't play in a crowd," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of the turnovers.

"It's something they do to most teams, but you're not going to give yourself a chance to win when you allow them to play to their strength."

Michael Malone quipped that Nikola Jokic was purely out to defend him after the Denver Nuggets pair were ejected from Monday's game against the Detroit Pistons.

Two-time NBA MVP Jokic and Nuggets head coach Malone were both ejected in the first quarter of Denver's 107-103 win over the struggling Pistons, who have now lost 12 straight games.

Jokic was called for a technical foul for arguing with the officials, before he was tossed for arguing another call in the final two minutes of the quarter.

Malone, meanwhile, was ejected because he went onto the court to dispute a decision.

"I think Nikola was worried about my welfare," Malone joked.

"It is tough to watch a game on TV – we were hugging on good plays and I was cursing in Serbian on the bad ones."

Denver are second in the Western Conference with a 10-4 record for the season.

Michael Malone has agreed to a new contract with the Denver Nuggets, according to reports.

Malone has spent the last eight seasons with Denver, who – along with the help of talisman Nikola Jokic – he guided to the NBA championship last season.

And the two-time NBA All-Star coach is now being rewarded with a new deal.

The 52-year-old has agreed to a contract extension that will make him one of the league's highest-paid coaches.

Malone took over in Denver in 2015 following a stint in charge of the Sacramento Kings, where he took up his first head coaching role. 

He is the fourth-longest-serving coach in the NBA, and has coached the Nuggets for 647 games – trailing only Doug Moe and George Karl in that regard.

Despite losing to the Houston Rockets on Sunday, the Nuggets top the Western Conference with an 8-2 record.

Jamal Murray is confident there is more to come from the Denver Nuggets after the franchise's first NBA Finals success.

The Nuggets beat the Miami Heat 94-89 on Monday to secure a 4-1 series win, ending their wait for a championship.

Nikola Jokic, who was named the Finals MVP, starred with 28 points and 16 rebounds, while Murray added 14 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.

After losing Game 2 at home, Denver bounced back with two dominant victories in Miami before rounding off their triumph back in Colorado, and Murray had few doubts the Nuggets would get the job done.

"I knew once we were healthy, we could do it," Murray told ESPN. "So this [championship] was long overdue. I think this is the first of many.

"We clearly can do it, so let's do it again."

There was a similar sentiment from Denver coach Michael Malone, who wants to turn a championship into a dynasty.

He told reporters: "Pat Riley said something many years ago. I used to have it up on my board when I was a head coach in Sacramento.

"It talked about the evolution in this game and how you go from a nobody to an upstart, and you go from an upstart to a winner, and a winner to a contender, and a contender to a champion, and the last step after a champion, is to be a dynasty.

"So we're not satisfied. We accomplished something this franchise has never done before, but we have a lot of young talented players in that locker room, and I think we just showed through 16 playoff wins what we're capable of on the biggest stage in the world."

Two-time NBA MVP Jokic was the star of the show all season for the Nuggets.

The 28-year-old tallied 600 points, 269 rebounds and 190 assists in the postseason. It is the first time any player in the history of the NBA had reached those numbers across a 20-game span (including both regular-season and postseason games).

Jokic also became the first player in NBA history to have 25+ points and 15+ rebounds on 75 per cent shooting in a championship-clinching win.

"The job is done, and we can go home now," Jokic said.

Two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic has "zero interest" in the hype surrounding this year's award.

Jokic is a leading candidate for the 2022-23 MVP award, alongside Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The winner will be announced on Tuesday, a day after Jokic led the Denver Nuggets to a 97-87 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Jokic delivered a performance worthy of an MVP, scoring 39 points and adding 16 rebounds to help Denver take a 2-0 series lead.

But the 28-year-old Serbian is not paying much credence to the speculation over who will claim the prize.

"I don't really think about it. Like zero interest," said Jokic, who is hoping to spend Tuesday recovering.

"Hopefully, it's going to be a sunny day, so I can be in the swimming pool," he quipped.

Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are the only other players to have been named an MVP for three seasons running.

"I mean, I cannot think about that, because I cannot control it," Jokic said.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone knows that Jokic is not motivated by individual success.

"I marvel at his greatness, I marvel at his consistency, his excellence, his ability to find so many different ways to beat you, whether it's scoring, rebounding, playmaking, not afraid of the moment," Malone said of Jokic.

"There's so many quality [MVP] candidates, and it'll be a really close race.

"But I know what motivates Nikola Jokic, what motivates myself and the rest of the guys in that locker room, is not the MVP.

"It's our journey to try and win the first championship in franchise history."

After two home wins for the Nuggets, Game 3 in Phoenix takes place on Friday.

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