After bursting into view last year as a full-fledged member of the new vanguard of multifaceted big men re-shaping the sport as we know it, Nikola Jokic stumbled out of the blocks this season. The Serbian center scored just seven points on 13 shots in the Denver Nuggets’ first two games, and Denver sputtered to a 1-3 start, prompting many to wonder whether the Nuggets were on track to be this year’s team to generate plenty of summertime buzz as a playoff contender only to fizzle once the bright lights came on.
Or maybe, like a certain defending champion we could mention, Jokic just needed a little bit more time to get revved up. He’s looked to be running full throttle for the last week and a half or so, and was certainly firing on all cylinders on Tuesday night in dispatching the Brooklyn Nets at Pepsi Center:
Jokic repeatedly, determinedly and seemingly effortlessly hammered the Nets on Tuesday, torching the visitors to the tune of a career-high 41 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals in just 31 minutes to lead Denver to a 112-104 win that got Mike Malone’s club back on the sunny side of .500. That’s a new career high for the third-year big man, one made all the more special by the fact that the whole fam flew halfway around the world there to take it in:
— Chris Marlowe (@ChrisMarlowe) November 8, 2017
Brooklyn skews small and doesn’t feature a difference-maker in the middle; you might recall Joel Embiid manhandling the Nets in the preseason, or the troubles they’ve had stopping the likes of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Kristaps Porzingis and old buddy Brook Lopez since the start of the campaign. It follows, then, that they had just about no shot of stopping Jokic, who used his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame to bully smaller defenders like Quincy Acy and Tyler Zeller, and deployed his surprising quickness to dust Timofey Mozgov.
“He’s a tough, tough cover,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said, according to Chris Dempsey of Nuggets.com. “When we played Denver, it’s like, man, it’s not something we’re used to. A very tough cover.”
Jokic made 16-of-25 field goal attempts on Tuesday, including a 4-for-9 mark from long distance. He rained jumpers as a transition trailer and a pick-and-pop outlet, acted as the elbow hub for Denver’s ever-whirling dribble-handoff actions, and dropped the kind of on-time and on-target feeds that make you want to run them back again and again:
take this jokic bounce pass and shoot it into my veins pic.twitter.com/XdNpHoDxqQ
— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) November 8, 2017
How dominant was Jokic on Tuesday? Enough to eclipse Brooklyn’s first five by himself.
And one more time.
Jokic: 41 points
Brooklyn starting five: 40 points
— Chris Dempsey (@chrisadempsey) November 8, 2017
“I kind of felt good tonight,” Jokic said after the game, according to Gina Mizell of the Denver Post. “And I just wanted to try my luck.”
It’s the kind of outing that turned Jokic into a cause célèbre among League Pass die-hards last season, and it’s one he’s gotten back to producing pretty regularly after his all-too-brief “slump.” Over his last nine games, Jokic is averaging 21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, four assists and 1.4 steals in 30.5 minutes per game. He’s firmly planted himself at the top of the Nuggets’ food chain, averaging 14.2 shots per game during that stretch, and has devoured those opportunities, shooting a blistering 57 percent from the field, 47.2 percent from 3-point land on four launches a night, and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
“When you’re doing that, you keep shooting,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said after the game, according to Mizell. “You don’t turn to pass to anybody. That’s what we need from Joker — just for him to be aggressive. I think it takes a lot of pressure off a lot of us.”
Denver’s attack is still nowhere near the heights it reached over the final four months of last season, ranking 15th, dead middle in a 30-team league, in offensive efficiency to date. But they’ve been heating up over the past couple of weeks, averaging 108 points per 100 possessions in winning five of seven to improve to 6-5 on the season, level with the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans — two teams the Nuggets will likely battle all season long for a playoff berth in a crowded Western Conference.
Fighting through that crowd and back into the postseason for the first time 2013 will require a lot of things. Right off the top: The Nuggets must show a consistent commitment to getting stops. So far, so decent: After finishing dead last in the league in points allowed per possession last year, Denver sits 18th in defensive efficiency through 11 games, which isn’t enough of an improvement to start printing playoff tickets, but represents progress all the same.
They need to do a better job of taking care of the ball and, more importantly, keeping opponents from ramming it down their throat off miscues; nobody’s allowing more points off turnovers than Denver. They need to find an answer at the point, where both Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay have shown flashes, but neither shoots better than 40 percent from the field or looks like a reliably bankable playmaking option right now. There’s stuff to figure out.
Jokic is what gives the rest of the Nuggets the time and space to solve. He can carry the offense, clear the glass and keep everybody else fed while they get in where they fit in. That he can do it all at just 22 years of age is what gives everyone in Denver hope for a brighter present and future, even amid slow starts and slight stumbles.
“He is a hell of a player,” Malone said, according to Aniello Piro of Mile High Sports. “I am going to stop saying he is a hell of a young player, because I don’t care how old he is. He is one of the best players in the NBA.”
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