“Best Player in the World” Puts Denver Nuggets One Game From Conference Finals

When Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić was named the MVP for the third time in four years, Shaquille O’Neal told him during his “congratulatory” interview that he thought Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder actually deserved the award.

SGA has been fantastic, and his 34 points on Monday helped the Thunder tie their series with the Dallas Mavericks, 2-2. He’d be a fine choice for MVP if we lived in a world where Jokić didn’t exist. But Jokić does, and because of him, the Nuggets now lead their series with the Minnesota Timberwolves, 3-2. After losing their first two games at home, the defending champions have won three straight, and are one win from the Western Conference Finals.

On Tuesday, Jokić played 41 minutes, scored 40 points, and had 13 assists, with 16 of his points coming in the third quarter, when Denver turned a close game into a blowout.

“I just laugh. That’s all I can do,” said Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards on Jokić’s Game 5 dominance. “I can’t be mad. He’s the MVP. He’s the best player in the NBA. He showed it the last three games. He was special tonight. I have to give him his flowers. He was that guy.”

Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch called it “an MVP, best player in the world performance,” and he has to go back to the drawing board to figure what, if anything, his team can do to stop him.

For most of the night, Jokić was being defended by four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. All Jokić did against the best defender in the league was hit 15 of his 22 shots, and he was 2-for-3 from the 3-point line. None of Jokić’s points came easy, yet he never looked bothered. Drain a three, get the bounce on a fall-away in the lane, throw up a sky hook ala Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Jokić never changed expression. He just quietly went about dismantling Gobert and anyone else who stepped in his way.

Nuggets Favorites in the West

The swings of this series are easy to see in the current betting odds. When Denver fell behind 0-2, their odds were +475 to come back and win the series. Minnesota was -525 to close out the Nuggets and move on to the conference finals.

Of the 421 teams that have lost the first two games of a series, only 33 came back to win it. That’s a 93% failure rate for teams that are 0-2. The shift in odds made sense.

But three straight wins by Denver has turned the betting on this series on its head. The Nuggets are now -450 to beat Minnesota, while the Timberwolves are +350. And when it comes to winning the West, the defending champs are -115. The Thunder are next at +260, the Mavericks are +500, and the Timberwolves are +700. Just three games ago, Minnesota was paying even money on winning the Western Conference.

Conference and Finals MVP

In the Jokić vs. Gilgeous-Alexander question, they are the two betting favorites to win Western Conference Finals MVP. Jokić is at -105 and SAG is +295. Luka Dončić of the Mavericks is at +600, and Edwards of the Timberwolves is +800.

Jamal Murray of the Nuggets is a distant fifth at +2000.

Odds for the Finals MVP, which was won by Jokić last year, has Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics as the +125 favorite. Jokić is next at +290, SAG is +900, and Boston’s Jaylen Brown is +1000.

The Celtics are up on the Cleveland Cavaliers, 3-1, and they host the Cavs at TD Garden on Wednesday with a chance to close out that series.

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