Nearly 20 years ago the Denver Nuggets, led by a player wearing No. 15, were a yearly presence in the NBA playoffs.
Most of the trips ended in the first round, but in 2009 Denver went to the Western Conference finals before losing in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Flash ahead 12 years and another No. 15 is leading Denver into the postseason again. And Nikola Jokic is going against the man who had a productive run wearing that number for the Nuggets.
The past will meet the present when the Portland Trail Blazers and Nuggets open the best-of-seven, first-round series at Denver on Saturday night. The Nuggets took two of the three games in the regular season.
The Trail Blazers are led by Damian Lillard but plenty of attention will be on Portland forward Carmelo Anthony, that former Nuggets All-Star who used to wear No. 15 on his jersey.
The 18-year veteran, who has revived his career with the Trail Blazers, has gained perspective in his long career that began as the No. 3 overall pick by Denver in the 2003 draft.
“It’s a lot different now. My mindset is different. My goals are different. We’re going in there trying to win,” Anthony said. “So, it’s a different type of mentality, but deep down inside I know that Denver will always hold a special place for me.”
While he has affection for his first NBA stop, Anthony would like nothing more than help eliminate the Nuggets. They last met in the playoffs in 2019, with Portland winning Game 7 at Denver in the second round.
A lot has changed for the Nuggets since then. They acquired Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline this season and shipped one of the better defensive guards to get him in Gary Harris. Denver also will be without Jamal Murray, who tore the ACL in his left knee nearly six weeks ago.
But one thing that has stayed the same — and has gotten even better — is Jokic. The 7-foot, triple-double threat is one of three consensus MVP finalists and is the main reason Denver is the third seed in the Western Conference.
Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game while playing all 72 regular-season games. In the 18 games after second-leading scorer Murray went down on April 12, Jokic averaged 26.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists.
The Nuggets went 13-5 without Murray, including a meaningless loss at Portland on Sunday to wrap up the regular season.
What made Jokic’s numbers more impressive was that Denver also was without guards Monte Morris and Will Barton. The Nuggets needed contributions from Austin Rivers, signed late in the season, as well as Facundo Campazzo, Markus Howard and Shaquille Harrison.
Morris returned at the end of the regular season and Barton is expected back at some point in the first round, possibly as soon as Game 1.
Campazzo, a 30-year-old rookie from Argentina, took some time getting adjusted to the NBA but has played well down the stretch.
“I think in that stretch, Facu really impacted the game on both ends,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Scoring and playmaking on offense, defense, loose balls, being into guys, being just a constant pest out there. I don’t know if we’re 13-5 without Facu’s play.”
–Field Level Media