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Can Nikola Jokic keep this up for an entire season? The pressure on him continues to mount

Harrison Wind Avatar
November 19, 2021

It’s Nov. 19 — just about one month into the NBA regular season — and there’s already an incredible burden that’s been placed on Nikola Jokic’s shoulders.

It’s not like we didn’t expect him to carry a tremendous amount of responsibility night-in night-out this season. Jamal Murray was already going to miss a huge chunk of the year. Injuries were sure to happen, and Jokic being the ironman that he is would be Denver’s constant Metrodome. He’d provide consistency and stability every single game. He’d show up every night. He won’t complain. He won’t bitch or moan. He’d simply go out there and do his job.

It’s what he once again did Thursday. Jokic had an all-time first half against Philadelphia. It was an all-time destruction of a modern NBA defense. Jokic scored 27 points on (10-12 shooting) to go with 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 block across the first and second quarters. He scored or assisted on 15 of Denver’s 20 first-half baskets.

But he was ineffective after halftime and finished with just 30 points on the night. I asked Jokic postgame if the 76ers defense changed anything or focused in on him more starting in the third quarter. He said they didn’t, and it was just one of “those kinds of nights.” A banged-up wrist also likely contributed to a quiet second half. Jokic is officially questionable for tonight vs. Chicago with a right wrist sprain.

Will Barton deserves a shoutout. He at least gave Jokic some relief Thursday. Barton finished with 19 points on 7-14 shooting, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. On the season, he’s averaging a career-high 16.6 points and 4.4 assists per game.

But on most nights, whether the Nuggets win or lose comes down to if Jokic plays not a good but a great game. After a disastrous first-half stretch from the bench unit — you could repeat that sentence after most games this season — Jokic checked in at the 9:36 mark of the second quarter, about 2-3 minutes earlier than normal. At halftime, he was sitting on 20 minutes, and if the fourth quarter was competitive, Jokic would have logged nearly 40 minutes. That’s on the first night of a back-to-back against the 76ers who were losers of five-straight and without two or three starters depending on how you look at it (Joel Embiid, Danny Green, Ben Simmons).

Jokic’s minutes so far are down this year (34.6-32.4), but the pressure on him has been turned way up. Can he keep this going for an entire 82-game season? I wouldn’t say I’m worried, but it’s definitely on my mind.

Here’s Jokic on the high minutes he’s already played.

“I don’t know. It’s something I prepare for. I think that I’m in really good shape. (Head strength and condition coach) Felipe (Eichenberger) and (his assistant) Claus (Antunes De Souza) are doing a really good job of putting me in a situation where I’m in really good shape. They are doing a great job. Sometimes if they need me I need to play more. Sometimes if they don’t need me, I don’t need to play that much.”

Michael Porter Jr. being a non-factor on the offensive end of the floor in most of the nine games he played before injuring his back against Houston on Nov. 6 and missing six-straight games since is a killer. He was supposed to be that regular-season warrior who could take that pressure to produce at an elite level every single night occasionally off Jokic’s shoulders. He was that guy last season at least.

By the way, there’s no official word from the team on when Porter (low back pain) could return to the lineup. My understanding is that if he doesn’t respond to Denver’s current treatment plan, then the Nuggets will likely announce they’re shutting him down for an amount of time. My guess is that if Porter doesn’t return within one week or so, that formal announcement gets made.

Denver also still doesn’t know what it’s getting from its bench. When Barton’s not playing with the second unit, that group is living or dying on whether or not Bones Hyland plays a good game. He’s already assumed the role of captain of the second unit and his ability to get into the paint and play-make for himself and others is the only thing that’s kept the Nuggets’ bench lineup living and breathing over the last week. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a rookie in the first month of his NBA career.

Monte Morris and Aaron Gordon have had great offensive games but on the next night can disappear. Jeff Green gave the Nuggets zero points on zero shot attempts, 1 rebound, zero assists, zero steals and zero blocks in 23 minutes vs. Philly. That’s hard to do.

Jokic had to do close to everything Thursday. He kept the Nuggets within six points in the first half. He played through a sprained wrist in the second half. He even held Michael Malone back and kept him from drawing an even bigger fine from the league as he charged at an official midway through the third quarter to protest a no-call on a Seth Curry push-off that happened right in front of him. He did it all.

That just might be how it is for the reigning MVP. Heavy is the head the wears the crown.

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