DENVER — Duncan. Kareem. Olajuwon.

As Nuggets coach Michael Malone left the court both giddy and frantic, he cradled Nikola Jokic’s head as if the Serbian splendor were a long-lost son. He planted a kiss on Nikola’s cheek.

You love on the greats. You cherish the greats. That’s what Colorado has here with Jokic, who did things in a 4-2 series win over the Portland Trail Blazers that Nuggets fans have never seen.

“You can take anybody away from our team,” Malone said after the Nuggets finished off the Blazers with an come-from-behind 126-115 win Thursday night at Moda Center in Oregon.

“But if we have Nikola, you can put me, (assistant coaches) Wes Unseld, Ryan Bowen, Charles Klask, whoever you want out there. We’re going to find a way to compete. That’s how great he is.”

For the first time since they joined the NBA in 1976, the Nuggets have advanced in the playoffs in three straight seasons. Alex English’s Nuggets didn't do that. Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets didn’t do that. Joker’s Nuggets did that. Jamal Murray and Will Barton were subtracted from this chapter, but the golden age of Nuggets basketball is moving on, even with a limp.

The Nuggets will play the winner of the Phoenix Suns-Los Angeles Lakers series in a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal.

There will be folks who look at the Nuggets, a No. 3 seed, beating a No. 6 seed in the playoffs and think, 'What’s the big deal?' Politely ask them to check back in five years or so. The real ones know the NBA MVP ceremony honoring Jokic will be an "I told you so" moment. They have known for a minute we are watching greatness with Jokic, who for the series averaged 37 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists with a cast of characters that would make for an NBA sitcom.

Jokic is one of the greats, and someday the sports media world will catch up. His magic never has been more obvious than in a series in which his Nuggets rolled out a starting lineup that looked like this: an NBA rookie (Facu Campazzo), a guard who was unemployed two months ago (Austin Rivers), a first-year starter (Michael Porter Jr.) and a forward in his 26th game with the Nuggets (Aaron Gordon). It’s a mish-mash lineup. It’s not a playoff series-winning lineup. Except for ... the aww-shucks superstar who came away from an all-time show to say this: “It was a team effort,” Jokic said after scoring 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Game 6.

There is some Magic to Joker. There is some Peyton to Joker. There is some Sid the Kid to Joker. If nothing else, he is a one-name guy.

(When I arrived) “I was like, ‘Yo, why don’t he get a lot of credit? He was getting triple-doubles three years ago, four years ago," said Monte Morris, who came up huge with 22 points.

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The beauty of Jokic’s game is what Malone said — anyone who plays with him suddenly is a superior player simply for playing with him. He has made teammates like Gary Harris rich. He resurrected a career in Austin Rivers. He earned a series-clinching smooch from his coach.

Kicking the Blazers to the curb was not the furthest that Jokic has guided the Nuggets in the postseason, nor did it provide awe-inspiring stats. He didn't have a triple-double, for example, and that's pretty rare for Joker. 

But this series was his masterpiece to date. Down 14 in the second half on Game 6, the Nuggets called on almost everyone with a jersey. Afterward, Jokic credited them all: Michael Porter Jr. for his blistering 22 points in the first quarter; JaMychal Green for his offensive rebounding; Rivers for his buy-in to the team concept; Gordon for a clutch 3-pointer from the corner. Only the ball boy was left out.

“We were chipping away, chipping away,” Jokic said. “Then in the fourth quarter it was a tie game.”

Calm and collected, Joker retired Dame Time. Blazers star Damian Lillard went 1-for-6 in the fourth. A tie game in the fourth is Jok Time.

Maybe there are kids reading this who aspire to play pro basketball. Watch how Joker adores, embraces and deeply believes in every man on his team. Watch how he found deep reserve Shaq Harrison for a Serbian bear hug. His Nuggets lost starters Jamal Murray (almost two months ago) and Will Barton (six weeks ago), and God bless it, his Nuggets are still playing.

“Nobody can take the fight out of us,” Jokic said.

The Chief. The Admiral. The Diesel.

“I don’t even think Joker has social media,” Porter said.

The Joker.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)