Nuggets advance to Western Conference finals, focused on 'winning a championship'

PHOENIX -- As boos filled the air inside Footprint Center at halftime on Thursday, Nikola Jokic made his way back toward the Denver Nuggets locker room.

Jokic sauntered through the back hallway with his usual nonchalant body language without betraying a hint of the fact that the Nuggets were up 30 and well on their way back to the Western Conference finals.

As they have all season long, the Nuggets followed the two-time MVP's lead with all-business looks on their faces. The Nuggets are on a mission to win their first-ever NBA championship and are halfway there after eliminating the Suns with a 125-100 win in Game 6.

"We weren't satisfied winning the first round," Denver head coach Michael Malone said of beating Minnesota in five games. "We're not satisfied now.

"... We're not celebrating and popping champagne and throwing water over each other because our goal wasn't to get to the Western Conference finals. I keep saying our goal is to win a championship, so we have much more work to do."

The top-seeded Nuggets are returning to the Western Conference finals for the first time since losing the conference championship to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Orlando, Florida, bubble.

Denver will host either the Golden State Warriors or the Lakers starting next Tuesday.

Either the Lakers or Warriors, who beat the Nuggets in five games in the first round last year, will be facing an even better Jokic than they each did in previous postseason encounters. Jokic completed a phenomenal series doing something only Russell Westbrook has done. He averaged 34.5 points per game and a triple-double -- the second-highest scoring average while averaging a triple-double in a playoff series all time to Westbrook's 37.4 points per game in the 2017 first round, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

Jokic overwhelmed the Suns with his third triple-double in four games, notching 32 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds to go with three steals while making 13 of 18 shots. Jokic joined Westbrook, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to have an all-time-best three triple-doubles in a single playoff series.

Jokic continues to put up historic numbers. But despite that, and the fact that the Nuggets won 53 games and finished with the West's top seed, Denver has also flown a bit under the radar.

After trading for Kevin Durant, the Suns became a popular choice to come out of the Western Conference playoffs and were even favored entering their series against the Nuggets despite being the lower fourth seed.

And even as they await the winner of the Lakers-Warriors series, the Nuggets know they'll be in the shadow of an opponent with a bigger national profile in either the LeBron James-led Lakers or the Stephen Curry-led defending champion Warriors.

Either way, the Nuggets will be looking for a little payback. They lost in five games to the Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference finals. And the Warriors eliminated the Nuggets, who did not have an injured Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., in five games in the first round last postseason.

While he enters this conference finals having won two MVP awards since his first trip there in 2020, Jokic said he is unsure how this experience will be different for him.

"Hopefully it's going to be different," Jokic said. "We lost [last time]. We were in the bubble against the Lakers, that make any sense [of how unordinary that experience was]? We were injured against Golden State [last year]. It's not the finals, but I'm just talking about the teams that we lost [to]. So, we have a nice opportunity to do something."

For Murray, it has been a long journey back to the conference finals stage. He had a breakout postseason in the 2020 bubble when he averaged 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 50.5% shooting, including making 45.3% from behind the arc. Then he tore his left ACL the following season on April 12, 2021, and missed two consecutive postseasons. Although he struggled with his 3-point shot for stretches against the Suns, Murray was averaging 25.9 points, 6.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds this postseason entering Game 6 against Phoenix.

But Thursday morning, Murray felt so ill, he did not participate in the morning shootaround and stayed in his room for much of the morning and early afternoon. The Nuggets cut their shootaround short because other members of the team, including Malone, were feeling under the weather, and the team added Murray to the injury report as questionable with a non-COVID-19 illness.

Murray started Game 6, though, and had 26 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. The Suns also could not contain Murray's backcourt mate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Brought in to provide championship experience and defense from his Lakers days, Caldwell-Pope started the game on fire, making six of his first seven shots before finishing with 21 points. He also helped set the tone defensively as Devin Booker missed six of his first eight shots and Durant missed his first four shots in the first quarter.

Behind Caldwell-Pope's aggressive play and Jokic's steady direction, the Nuggets built an 81-51 lead at the half.

The Suns were booed off the court as they retreated to their locker room at intermission down 30, a replay of the soundtrack they heard at halftime of Game 7 of last year's second round against the Dallas Mavericks. This was only the fourth time in NBA history a team facing elimination trailed by 30 or more at the half, and the Suns were part of that wrong side of history two of those times, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

This certainly was not what Suns coach Monty Williams imagined when Phoenix traded for Durant before the trade deadline.

But injuries hurt Phoenix. Chris Paul sustained a groin injury in Game 2 and did not play the rest of the series. And the Suns were without center Deandre Ayton (ribs) in what would be their season finale.

Booker and Durant, both averaging over 42 minutes per game this postseason entering Game 6, might have finally run out of gas as they combined to shoot 12-for-32 from the field. Booker was held to just 12 points after entering the game averaging 34.6 points in the series.

Now the Nuggets move on knowing that they still have even more to prove to a national audience that might continue to doubt them and want to talk more about their future Western Conference finals opponent.

"It seems like for years now, some dusty old cowtown in the Rocky Mountains, the little respect that we get," Malone said. "And you can sit there and fight it, complain about it or you can just embrace who we are and what we have. And I'd rather not waste time on all the pundits who count us out or don't give us the respect that we deserve as a team and everything that we've been, we've done.

"But there's one thing we haven't done -- until we win a championship, people are going to keep saying that about us. So that's all, that's what drives us, is winning a championship. Getting to the Western Conference finals doesn't do it. Getting to the Finals doesn't do it. It's winning a championship."