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"He’s doing what he’s supposed to do": Nikola Jokic is taking over while the Nuggets are battered and bruised

Christian Clark Avatar
December 17, 2018

Eleven nuggets for 11 Nikola Jokic buckets in Denver’s 95-86 win over the Raptors on Sunday.

1. Mason Plumlee is a reverse shot artist. The Nuggets backup center specializes in finishing with his back facing the rim. He’ll go up backwards from just about any angle, but never has he gone up backwards off the dribble. Nikola Jokic pulled off that funky feat in the third quarter.

“His was smooth,” Plumlee said. “It was off the dribble. I don’t think I’ve done one of those. It was pretty impressive.”

Somehow Jokic keep finding ways to dazzle. He water polo-ed, Eurostepped and spun his way to 26 points. He was Denver’s high point man for the fourth game in a row. The scoring spike he’s on started Dec. 8 against Atlanta. He had 24 that night, followed it up with 27 against the Grizzlies and netted 24 against the Thunder. The Nuggets, who have been without Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton during that stretch, are 3-1.

“He’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s our franchise player. We’ve committed to him. We’ve believed in him. He’s the future of this team. Whether we have guys out or we have a full roster, we expect a lot from Nikola. I think with Gary, Will and Paul all out, we’ve seen kind of like down the stretch last year (where) Nikola steps up and contributes to the win in many different ways.”

2. This does feel similar to Jokic’s closing stretch to the 2017-18 season, doesn’t it? Compare his numbers during the Nuggets’ final 18 games last year to what he’s done in their last four:

  • 24 ppg (54 percent shooting), 11.5 rpg, 6.4 apg
  • 25.3 ppg (56.1 percent shooting), 11.8 rpg, 6.5 apg

Jokic elevates his play when his team needs it. Denver has beaten three quality opponents in the last week severely shorthanded because he’s stepping up.

“We know that we are playing good basketball,” Jokic said. “Everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to play for each other. That’s the only way.”

3. The Nuggets looked like they were cooked late in the third quarter. Kawhi Leonard’s 3 with 3:55 remaining in the quarter pushed Toronto’s lead to 13. But over the next eight minutes, Denver ripped off a 23-2 run that was one of its most impressive stretches of the season. Two factors keyed it: Jamal Murray caught fire, and Denver put the defensive clamps on Toronto. The Raptors shot 4 of 23 in the fourth quarter. Murray (15 fourth-quarter points) outscored Toronto (14 fourth-quarter points) by himself.

The Raptors, who were missing Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, were banged up themselves. But limiting them to 86 points is still an accomplishment.

4. Said Jokic: “We kind of just dominated them in the second half.”

5. Chew on this: The Nuggets lead the league in holding opponents under 100 points. They’ve already done it 13 times in 29 games. Last year, they only held opponents under the century mark 17 times in 82 games. They might blow past that mark in January.

6. Having a short memory is an asset if you’re a scorer. Murray missed seven of the first eight shots he attempted Sunday. He still wound up with 19. “I ran the first play of the fourth quarter for him,” Malone said. “I knew I had to get him going while Nikola was out. He makes that first shot. As we all know, once Jamal sees it go through the net he gets hot.”

An encouraging sign: Lately, Murray and Jokic are on the same page during key moments. The scoop shot Murray hit with 2:29 to go nearly scraped the Pepsi Center roof before dropping in.

7. Murray and Monte Morris were both on the floor while Denver put the finishing touches on its third consecutive win. Playing the two point guards together has been a winning formula for Malone this season. Murray and Morris have logged 341 minutes alongside each other; Denver is blasting opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions in that time.

“We played a lot this summer,” Morris said. “Two on twos. Five on fives. I just know his game. We’ve just got a good bond. We kick it off the court too. I feel like that goes a long way.”

Inserting Morris allows Murray to focus on scoring. We know he’s good at that.

“I think we know exactly what we’re going to do,” Murray said. “I think that’s why we work well together. He knows where I’m going to shoot. I know when he’s going to drive and when I need to space off of him.”

8. No one expected Morris to close games this year. Not Morris. Not Malone.

“I’m not going to lie: I did not expect Monte Morris to be playing at the level he has,” Malone said. “I don’t think anybody anticipated that. We knew he was going to play and help us, but to the level that he’s closing games and helping us win games? No one saw that. Monte deserves all the credit with that.”

Morris scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out four assists. He committed no turnovers in 38 minutes. It’s hard to believe he’s a 23-year-old playing NBA rotation minutes for the first time in his career.

“If you don’t want to be in the game in the clutch, you shouldn’t be playing basketball,” Morris said. “With the depth chart before the season I didn’t envision closing games. Things happen. I’m just producing.”

9. Morris has solidified Denver’s point guard depth chart. Remember last year when the Nuggets were asking Will Barton to play backup minutes at the one?

“Monte, he’s been great for us,” Plumlee said. “I remember last year we were playing Will Barton at the one. Will’s a scorer. Monte sets the table. It’s good to have a rotation that you can count on deep into the bench.”

10. There’s a case to be made that no Nugget gives better effort from game to game than Plumlee. He’s going 100 percent every second he’s on the floor. Plumlee, who even spent some time shadowing Leonard, scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds. He was a plus-15 in 27 minutes.

11. Torrey Craig’s offense is coming around. Craig couldn’t get an outside shot to go down for much of this season, but in Denver’s last two games he’s discovered his stroke. Craig scored 13 Sunday after going for a career-high 15 on Friday. He’s 6 of 12 from 3-point land in his last two games. In 22 before that, he was 8 of 44 from distance.

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