Jokic passes Wilt, has Nuggets on verge of WCF

DENVER — Michael Malone interrupted a postgame question about Nikola Jokic passing Wilt Chamberlain for the most triple-doubles by a center in NBA playoff history.

“Again?” the Denver Nuggets‘ coach asked facetiously. “Making a habit of this. Must be stat-padding.”

Malone’s sarcastic response was directed at Jokic’s detractors. The two-time MVP, though, isn’t worried about critics or stats. He cares only about wins, and he has his team one win away from returning to the Western Conference finals.

Jokic delivered 29 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists and two blocks to help Denver crush the Phoenix Suns 118-102 in Game 5 on Tuesday night at Ball Arena.

The Nuggets now lead the series 3-2 and can eliminate the Suns in Game 6 on Thursday in Phoenix.

Jokic put the Suns’ season on the brink with his 10th career playoff triple-double, breaking a tie with Chamberlain (nine) and moving into a tie for fifth-most with Draymond Green, Rajon Rondo, Larry Bird and Jason Kidd, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

It was his second triple-double in the past three games, and it came after a 53-point explosion in Game 4.

“I mean, to be honest, I just like to win the game,” Jokic said of whether he prefers trying to beat a team with a triple-double or scoring. “So whatever it takes. I open the game today, I think really badly, maybe I was forcing it.

“And then I just slow it down, relax and let the game come to me. It’ll come to me and that happens.”

Jokic shot 2-for-6 in the first quarter but had five points, five rebounds and four assists in his first 12 minutes. The Nuggets leaned on Michael Porter Jr., who scored 14 of his 19 in the first quarter to help Denver open a 15-point lead.

In the third quarter, Jokic dominated, making 7 of 8 shots and scoring 17 points. He even drew a technical foul off Kevin Durant when he walked over to a Suns huddle near half court and tried to listen in. Durant nudged Jokic with his left forearm and the two-time MVP flailed, drawing the technical foul.

Jokic, who was fined $25,000 on Monday for making contact with Phoenix owner Mat Ishbia during a bizarre sideline confrontation in Game 4, was doing everything he could to give his team an advantage.

While much of the talk has been about Devin Booker being the best player in this series, Malone said his center has been dominant as well.

“He’s a guy that literally will just read the game and take what the game offers,” Malone said. “And in this series, everyone’s talking about Devin Booker, rightfully so. The performances he’s put on in the first round against the Clippers, against us, have been just spectacular. But I think sometimes we maybe take Nikola for granted because what he is doing is just incredible.

“He makes everyone around him better. Never gets rattled. ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ And we’re just so thankful that he’s a Denver Nugget.”

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