Kiszla: The NBA playoffs are hard. This is no time for Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. to play soft. – The Denver Post

Who were these jokers, jesters and imposters that Denver center Nikola Jokic was forced to drag up and down the court?

The NBA invited the Nuggets to a playoff game on Saturday. They politely and meekly refused to show up, resulting in a 115-95 loss to Portland that wasn’t even as close as the score would indicate.

“I thought we had some guys that were tentative, that looked a little scared, that we played scared,” said Denver coach Michael Malone, holding nothing back as he blasted his players’ resolve.

If Jokic is not at his MVP best, can the Nuggets win this best-of-seven series, now knotted at two victories apiece?

The Magic 8-Ball says: Outlook not so good.

And Denver is going to be stuck behind that 8-Ball unless young forward Michael Porter Jr steps up. He was invisible in this blowout loss, taking only three shots, scoring a measly three points. He was tentative. He played scared.

Porter wants to be the man. And when the stroke on his jumper evokes sweet dreams of Kevin Durant, fans and analysts alike can get carried away, hoping MPJ can be KD when he grows up.

But growing up is hard to do in the NBA playoffs. And Porter has yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday.

So maybe it’s no surprise Porter was schooled like a child by Portland swingman Norman Powell, a wily six-year veteran who won a championship ring in Toronto before joining the Blazers earlier this year at the trade deadline.

But the Nuggets cannot afford MPJ to disappear again in this series, now hanging in the balance. “We, as teammates have to find him better looks,” Jokic said.

The playoffs are a grind. OK, compared to the regular season, the travel between games is more leisurely and in-game timeouts can certainly be more relaxing, as the television rights-holder pushes to move more merchandise during commercial breaks. So the strain on a player isn’t necessarily physical. It’s the mental stress that exerts a toll.

With Damian Lillard’s scoring touch missing in action, the Blazers won with energy and aggression — two items the Nuggets left back at the hotel. While Denver casually hung around through halftime, Portland erased any inkling of intrigue from Game 4 during the opening five minutes of the third quarter, outscoring the Nuggets 16-4 and increasing its lead to 73-51.

And the rest of the third period? It only got worse. The worry lines on Malone’s face deepened and his exasperation grew as the Blazers’ lead ballooned to 30 points.

After the loss, Malone was ticked. He ranted about his starting five’s lack of effort and his team’s failure to stand up and look a desperate Portland team in the eye.

“When you guys write: ‘Coach Malone goes on a rant,’ it’s not a rant. I’m just stating facts. There is no rant here,” Malone said. “Our players have heard it from me during the game and at halftime and after the game.”

With a chance to put this series in a headlock, Denver went through the motions. On the trip to Portland, the Nuggets took care of business early, stealing a win in Game 3 on the fourth-quarter heroics of Austin Rivers. But then the visitors to Rip City let their focus go as hazy as a grapefruit IPA.

When the Nuggets could’ve picked up a hammer, they took a step back, got on their heels  and let the Blazers burn them. Getting run out of the gym in this situation is simply a mistake of human nature.

But it’s a mistake that a championship team simply doesn’t make.

The NBA playoffs are hard. The Nuggets went soft in Game 4.

Malone was absolutely correct to declare that unacceptable.

This series, now a best-of-three, is going to be won as much on mental toughness as basketball skill. “It’s going to be a dogfight,” Nuggets forward JaMychal Green said.

Injured guard Jamal Murray, who often hit the big shots when Denver needed it most during last year’s playoff run, isn’t walking through the locker room door and onto the floor.

As MVP magnificent as Jokic can be, can Denver beat the Blazers with Jokic alone? Ain’t gonna happen.

The Nuggets need MPJ to grow up and step up at crunch time. At his tender age of 22, is it fair to ask:

Is he man enough?

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