Kiszla: A championship culture born of bromance between Nikola Jokic and Michael Malone “that’s more than basketball.”

The Nuggets might not be the NBA’s most talented team. But they could well be the league’s most defiant bunch, bristling at any suggestion Denver is a fly-over city unworthy of serious championship consideration, while spitting in the face of adversity, no matter how wickedly the injury bug bites.

This never-say-die defiance is born of a rock-solid relationship between center Nikola Jokic and coach Michael Malone that’s a blend of New York City street smarts and stubborn Serbian loyalty. It’s a six-year-old bromance growing stronger with every victory.

“The guy gave me everything,” said Jokic, the MVP candidate nobody saw coming, except maybe Malone. “The guy gave me the freedom, he led me, he showed me the way. And we built a great relationship, not just he’s the coach and I’m a player. We are friends, too. It’s more than basketball.”

For the first time in its NBA history, Denver truly believes the time to win a championship is now. The team’s vision quest is resiliant and unshakable, despite a devastating season-ending injury to star guard Jamal Murray, plus so many dents and scratches to the roster it would be convenient for the Nuggets to curse the basketball gods and wait until next year.

“I know as the head coach of this team, I don’t care who we have available. As long as we have five guys to suit up, we’re going to go out and compete and we’re going to fight and we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” said Malone, whose current playing rotation is a jigsaw puzzle missing big pieces in Will Barton, Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier, all currently hurt. ”

But surrender? These Nuggets? Never. Not so long as Jokic is standing tall in the paint and Malone is barking encouragement from the Denver bench.

“That’s just who I am and just who our team is,” Malone said.

Rather than fold after Murray collapsed under the basket April 12 in Golden State, tearing the ACL in his left knee, the Nuggets have won 10 of 12 games. If that doesn’t prove the MVP bona fides of Jokic, maybe you’re too blind to see there’s absolutely nothing soft in the make-up of a center once derided as being too pudgy to ever be considered in the same elite class as LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

“Some guys run from adversity. And some guys thrive. I think (Jokic) embraces it. I think he’s at his best when his back is against the wall and no one is give us a chance,” said Malone, as saucy as a slice of New York pizza.

In the aftermath of Murray’s injury, front-runners leapt from the Denver bandwagon at the next stoplight. “Everybody around this nation was saying, “The Nuggets are done.’ Well, not me, not Nikola, not the rest of the guys in our locker room,” Malone said. “We have a tremendous belief in everything we’ve done and what we’ve built. We’ve built this from the ground up and take a lot of pride in that.”

Jokic and Malone are the cornerstones of the hard-nosed Nuggets culture. They arrive in a city that had fallen off the NBA map at the same time, back in 2015.

It was Malone who dared to build his team around Jokic, a second-round draft pick. And a relationship born of unwavering faith between coach and player is what gives the Nuggets the strength to never blink, much less give a hoot about what their doubters think.

Golden State built a dynasty in no small part because guard Stephen Curry became the embodiment of everything coach Steve Kerr envisioned for his Warriors on the court. The Nuggets of Camelo Anthony and George Karl were dangerous, but were doomed to never get over the championship hump because these two strong-willed men never saw eye to eye.

Understand the difference? A championship culture only starts to take hold in a locker room when the coach’s message is delivered on a daily basis through the actions of the team’s best player.

That’s why the essence of what makes Jokic great cannot be captured merely by the way he unselfishly packs the stat sheet with triple doubles. His elbows are sharp and his competitive fire burns hots. The Joker fears no one in this league.

“It’s a great example and reinforcement of why Nikola Jokic is the MVP,” Malone said. “For us to be doing what we’re doing you have to have a great player.”

The coach has instilled a New York state of mind that refuses to back down, while the Serbian center wraps teammates in a will of steel. It’s the basis of a beautiful basketball bromance formed by Jokic and Malone.

One more thing: If Jokic is the MVP, doesn’t Malone merit strong consideration as coach of the year?

“I trust him in everything he does,” Jokic said. “And he probably trusts me in whatever I do.”

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