Kiszla: Gritty, little underdog Nuggets remind Phoenix who’s real team to beat in the West

Maybe it’s time the NBA power-brokers and pundits woke up, got off their lazy rumps, grabbed an old-fashioned road atlas and took a little trip to discover a team from our dusty old cowtown in the lost time zone.

Don’t know about you. But for championship frauds, the gritty, little Nuggets look for real to me.

The Nuggets burned hotter than the Suns in a dominant 125-107 victory that opened this best-of-seven playoff series with a revelation.

“Nobody’s picking us to win,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Saturday. “All the pressure’s on them.”

When the playoffs began, Las Vegas oddsmakers made Phoenix the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. Although it doesn’t happen often, it appears that perhaps those wise guys in Vegas were wrong.

Let anybody and everybody suggest Denver is a fraud as a No. 1 seed. Milwaukee and Memphis are already gone from the championship hunt. The Nuggets know they’re legit contenders.

“What motivates us,” said Malone, whose team got swept from the playoffs by Phoenix in 2021, “is to win a championship.”

In the fourth quarter, as Denver was putting an exclamation point on this victory, guard Jamal Murray, who led all scorers with 34 points, cupped a hand to his ear during a timeout in the action, Murray demanded noise from the Ball Arena crowd, and maybe a little respect from the Nuggets’ doubters.

Game 1 went to the Nuggets. No problem. Anybody surprised?

“We know what we’re capable of … You’re asking us like we’re surprised,” said Murray, his words defensive and oozing with sharp-edged feistiness. “We know what we can do. We’re comfortable with what we can do.”

While the outcome of this series is far from decided, it’s obvious that while either Kevin Durant or Devin Booker can win a game by himself, these two Phoenix superstars will risk burnout with a heavy workload required against Denver, which is the better overall basketball team.

So let’s stand up and applaud Durant and Booker for filling the basket with 56 points between them, but let the record show they had to sweat for every hoop. Phoenix coach Monty Williams did not dare take them off the floor for more than a whiff of a breather in the thin, mile-high air of Colorado. In a blowout loss when Williams conceded defeat long before the final buzzer, Durant was on the court 36 minutes, while Booker played 40.

More concerning for the Suns? They have no good answer for Denver center Nikola Jokic, who again demonstrated that just maybe the two MVP awards in his trophy case are more than a gift from voters engaged in some sort of subliminal prejudice show. Would a little ketchup help choke down Jokic’s hollow stats of 24 points and 19 rebounds, Kendrick Perkins?

The X factor in this victory, however, was a player often regarded as a weak offensive link in the Denver starting lineup. “Aaron Gordon was phenomenal,” Malone said.

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When Gordon plays out of his mind, there’s no touching the Nuggets. OK, we know it’s impossible for the 27-year-old forward to be as spectacular every game as he was in Game 1, when Gordon scored 23 points and required only 13 shots from the field to do it.

But when Gordon can’t miss, Denver can’t be beaten … not by the Suns, the Lakers, the Celtics or anybody in this NBA tournament.

The Nuggets get no respect. So what?

“It’s not like bulletin-board material … like Rodney Dangerfield,” Malone said.

These Nuggets know there’s only one way to get respect.

Win it.

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