Nikola Jokic ready to help Denver Nuggets take next step

Ohm YoungmisukESPN Staff Writer3 Minute Read

Nikola Jokic pulled out his new wedding band to show reporters during his virtual media session Thursday.

After a nail-biting run to the Western Conference finals, Jokic got married, and he now hopes to help the Nuggets take a step closer toward winning a championship ring this season even though the star center feels some still don't view the Denver Nuggets as title contenders just yet.

"Even now, they are talking about how Clippers lost, they don't think about how Nuggets won," Jokic said, referencing Denver's erasing of a 3-1 series deficit against the LA Clippers in the West semifinals in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World this past season. "We don't care that nobody gives us some kind of whatever, respect. We're going to be there. We were in tough situations last year. We fight.

"Just [because] someone doesn't give us respect doesn't mean that we take their opinions. We know what we are capable of."

Denver is riding the momentum of back-to-back 3-1 series comebacks -- it did the same against the Jazz in the opening round -- before falling to the eventual champion Lakers in the conference finals. But it certainly has felt like the Nuggets' historic comebacks were overshadowed by the Clippers' playoff meltdown.

Denver, though, has gotten a taste of being on that conference finals stage and is hungry to get back there.

"It is not like we won the championship last year," point guard Jamal Murray said when asked about the current perception of the team. "We are going to keep grinding and keep going through kinks."

Clippers forward Marcus Morris, meanwhile, was asked about his team's motivation entering this season after losing to Denver. The veteran said he felt the Clippers were the better team.

"I think it hurt people being up 3-1," Morris said. "It's not about the losing, it's about how we lost. And I think that's the biggest motivation for this team, because at the end of the day, that team wasn't better than us. We all knew that. To be up and to lose, I think that put an extra sting in our mentality."

The Nuggets leaned on their continuity last season, but they return with some changes to the cast around Jokic and Murray. While the Lakers made significant additions in the offseason with Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, the Nuggets lost Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee in free agency., while adding JaMychal Green and Argentina's Facundo Campazzo.

"To be honest, I don't care about Lakers," Jokic said when asked about trying to keep up with the champs. "They're going to be good probably anyways. About us, I like it. I think sometimes change is really good for the team. Just to bring some new energy, new guys, new individuals, I think it's going to be interesting and I'm looking forward to see how we're going to be.

"I don't know how we're going to be. Are we going to be better? Are we going to be worse? I'm just looking forward to see how we're going to do this season in all these weird times (with COVID-19)."

The Nuggets are banking on Michael Porter Jr. to continue his ascension from injury and into the starting lineup. Porter Jr. averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in his first postseason after shining in the seeding games portion of the NBA restart in Orlando.

"We are going to need Michael to take the next step," Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said. "That is a poorly kept secret."

And of course, it's no secret that the Nuggets will go as far as Murray and Jokic take them. Coming off his 19-game playoff run in the bubble, Jokic feels like his improvement this season will come from his experience of playing in his first conference finals.

"How I can get better?" said Jokic, who averaged 24.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists in his second postseason. "I think it goes back to experience. My body is going to be a little bit kind of used to all the contact, all the physicality, how the game is fast, just by experience. I learned a lot from the last playoffs and just kind of growing up. Individual-wise, shooting better, be aggressive, whatever, but I just think experience is going to be the most important key."

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