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Nikola Jokic brushed off Michael Malone’s postgame declaration that his star center should be in the Most Valuable Player discussion quicker than his ballerina-esque feet pirouetted around Dallas Maverick defenders and to the basket Tuesday night in a 126-118 win.
“Naw. That’s an individual thing,” Jokic said when asked about potentially winning the award. “What happens, happens, I can not affect it, so….”
Getting Jokic to talk about individual accomplishments or his own stat line after a win or loss is like pulling teeth. The Nuggets’ star center, who’s likely heading to his first All-Star game this season, had another MVP-worthy performance in Denver’s fourth-straight win: 32 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He was a plus-15 overall in an eight-point win. Yet, Jokic wasn’t interested in discussing his night or Malone gassing up his candidacy for the league’s most prestigious honor.
What did Jokic want to talk about? A visit to the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children that he took with teammate Juancho Hernangomez last week to spread some much-needed holiday cheer.
“It’s a great thing. You can put a smile on kid’s faces,” Jokic said. “We got a text back from one of the nurses that one of the kids that was in depression for two months.He didn’t want to be around people and when he saw us he smiled and the nurses started crying. So that’s something that just shows how we can impact the lives of other people. It’s not just about basketball. We’re going to stop playing basketball in 10 years, you never know, maybe tomorrow, you never know. But while you’re playing you can have a big impact on the kids and the families.”
Jokic makes the trip every year around holidays, and on this visit, he and Hernangomez stayed much longer than they were originally scheduled to. The two were there to brighten the lives of less-fortunate kids whose best part of their day, or month, or maybe even year is seeing a truly larger than life NBA player enter the room. Jokic seems to enjoy those visits and other volunteer work he does, whether it’s with the Special Olympics or when he coached younger players last summer at Serbia’s first-ever Basketball Without Border’s camp, just as much as winning.
It’s a small peek into the mind of the Nuggets’ franchise cornerstone turned humanitarian, who after a fifth-straight game of absolutely cooking his opponent, wanted to avoid the spotlight at all costs and deflect praise onto his teammates. To his credit, they showed out.
Jamal Murray finished with 22 points, a career-high 15 assists and seven rebounds. Monte Morris tallied 16 points to go with five assists and just one turnover as the second-year player who logged just 25 minutes last season continues to play with the moxie of a 15-year veteran. Malik Beasley added 12 points on an efficient 5-8 shooting off Denver’s bench. Trey Lyles emerged from a season-long three-point shooting slump and sunk three triples on his way to 16 points. Hernangomez battled through an abdominal strain to play 30 minutes, score 12 points and grab four rebounds.
But the production Denver got from its bench would have been spoiled if it were not for Jokic and his brilliance.
Jokic was lights out in the first half against Dallas, tallying 22 points and nine rebounds. He had that look in his eye, you know the one where Jokic knows he can score against his defender every time down the floor. You can always tell when Jokic is in that type of zone by what he’s doing when the ball isn’t in his hands, pointing to his teammates, telling them where to go on the floor like he’s directing traffic at a busy downtown LoDo intersection and yelling at Murray or Plumlee to get to their spots and let him go to work.
Jokic found that same gear in the third, and with Denver trailing 95-93 with 3:28 remaining in the quarter, he subbed back into the game with four fouls and promptly led the Nuggets on a 12-0 run over the next final three-plus minutes to take 105-95 lead to the fourth. Jokic scored three baskets during that stretch, hauled in three rebounds, and gobbled Dwight Powell up and spit him out. The Mavericks would close to within three points early in the fourth, but Denver’s third-quarter burst proved to be the difference.
Jokic was masterful against Dallas, taking it to Powell, DeAndre Jordan and Dirk Nowitzki. He hit 10 of his 13 field goals from the paint, one step back jumper from 22-feet that sailed just over Jordan’s outstretched hands and nearly grazed Pepsi Center’s roof on its way through the net and two threes. He was a perfect 4 of 4 from the charity stripe.
As teammate after teammate doubled down on Malone’s assertion and championed Jokic for a spot alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and other MVP frontrunners, Jokic turned into his toughest critic.
“I shot a lot. Thirteen of 25, that’s alright I think,” Jokic said. “I need to get to the line a little bit more. I need to be more aggressive. I don’t know how. But somehow I need to be more aggressive.”
If there’s another level that Jokic can raise his game to, then the rest of the league is in even more trouble than originally thought. Since Paul Millsap fractured his toe in Charlotte — becoming the third Nuggets starter after Will Barton and Gary Harris that Denver is currently without due to a significant injury — Jokic has shifted into overdrive, averaging 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds and 6 assists per game. Somehow, Denver is 4-1 over that current stretch with wins over four potential playoff teams: the Grizzlies, Thunder, Raptors, and Mavs.
The aggressiveness Jokic has shown on offense as of late is reminiscent of how he played over the final 18 games of the 2017-18 season when the 23-year-old nearly carried the Nuggets to a playoff berth. The parameters are similar too. Denver was also shorthanded during that stretch with Harris missing nine of those 18 games and Millsap still finding his rhythm after sitting out for more than three months with a wrist injury. The numbers, well they’re almost identical.
- Final 18 games of 2017-18: 24 ppg (53.8 FG%, 47.6 3P%), 11.5 rpg, 6.4 apg
- Last five games: 26.6 ppg (54.9 FG%, 33.3% 3FG%), 12.8 rpg, 6 apg
“I would say he’s playing even better now,” Plumlee said comparing the two runs. “He’s playing through things. He gets fouled a lot. He has a lot of responsibility put on him but he’s just so steady this year. He’s taking shots, he’s getting people involved and he’s playing defense too. He’s really bringing it on both ends.”
Scan Pepsi Center’s crowd during one of Jokic’s eruptions and you’ll see fans with their jaws dropped marveling at his excellence. Reporters, some of whom have watched every game of Jokic’s career, are still in awe that a 7-footer with a dad bod can make the best defenders in the league look foolish. Rival players like J.J. Barea who shared a locker room with arguably the best European player of all-time, Dirk Nowitzki, for 10 NBA seasons, fawn over Jokic even while in the heat of battle.
“‘Man he’s a monster. Did he gain weight or something?'” Barea asked Morris during a break in the action Tuesday evening. “‘No, he actually lost weight,'” Morris replied. “‘He’s a problem.'”
Before Jokic spoke about he and Hernangomez’s hospital visit, the 7-footer carefully pored over the autopsy report from another Nuggets’ win. Jokic held the 8 1/2-by-11 inch white piece of paper with the night’s boxscore on it a few feet from his sacred set of eyes that sees the beautiful game two and three passes ahead. He scanned past his and Murray’s stat lines and fixated on the plus-minus numbers next to Denver’s bench.
“Nice. Their bench and their plus-minus,” he said, explaining what he was looking at. “Our bench is plus.”
“Minus 14, minus 27,” Jokic continued going down the list of double-digit minuses next to Barea and Powell’s names on the stat sheet. The Nuggets’ second unit, featuring Morris, Beasley, Lyles and new signing Nick Young had been impressive once again, outplaying the Mavericks’ reserves. In Jokic’s mind, it wasn’t his individual game that beat Dallas, but the play of his teammates and specifically the Nuggets’ second unit.
That was something he was more than willing to talk about.