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To achieve their goals this season this is the Nikola Jokic the Nuggets need

Harrison Wind Avatar
January 7, 2020

Nikola Jokic was running hot in Atlanta.

After the Nuggets’ 123-115 win over the Hawks, Michael Malone called Jokic Denver’s “thermostat.” Essentially, the Nuggets’ All-Star center sets the temperature and tone for his team. When he’s locked in and engaged good things come.

The analogy added up against the Hawks. From the game’s opening tip Jokic was a commanding presence inside. He bullied Atlanta’s big men John Collins, Bruno Fernando, and Alex Len for four quarters to finish with a career-high 47 points. He did his damage on an efficient 16 of 25 shooting from the field and knocked in four of his eight attempts from 3-point range to go with eight rebounds, five assists, two steals, and one block.

On the Nuggets’ second possession of the game, Jokic made his presence felt in the paint. He caught the ball two steps below the foul line, put one big right shoulder into Fernando, which knocked the Hawks’ 240-pound center back a few feet, leaned into Fernando again to draw contact, and lofted a shot off the glass that dropped for the Nuggets’ first field goal of the evening.

Jokic’s strength doesn’t get enough talk. The big man is so strong.

That shot set the tone for the Nuggets but also for Jokic. He scored nine of his 16 baskets from the paint but also got to the line 16 times and knocked in 11 free-throws. His 16 free-throw attempts and 11 makes from the charity stripe were both season-highs.

Atlanta dared Jokic to beat them from 3-point range Monday. He obliged. As one Hawks big man after another sagged off Jokic and into the paint, he attempted one wide-open 3 after the next. It’s not the worst strategy for teams to deploy against the Nuggets who can beat you a number of ways and were sporting the league’s best offense over the last 15 games. Jokic’s 3-point percentage has also hovered around 30% all season.

Here are two of his attempts from the first quarter.

And one from the second half. Atlanta never adjusted.

Jokic’s 3-pointer may be slowly coming around. Over this current stretch of 15 games he’s shooting 42.6% on a healthy 4.1 attempts per game and has continued to launch from long-distance all season even when his jumper hasn’t been falling. Give him credit there.

After shooting a combined 22.5% from 3 across October and November, Jokic converted on 39.3% of his triples in December. Through three games in January, Jokic is shooting 35.7% from 3-point range. The strategy of letting Jokic beat you from 3 might not be many opposing team’s default game plan soon enough.

Jokic has completely re-written the script on his season from the first couple months. Remember his late-November early-December offensive swoon when Jokic scored in single digits in four out of five games? It seems like ages ago.

Since Dec. 6, Jokic is averaging 23.4 points (55.6 FG%, 40.3 3P%), 9.5 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s flipped a switch. How locked in against the Hawks and how locked in he’s looked over the last month reminds you of the Jokic from last year’s playoff run. Jokic has been a battering ram down low, pinning opponents under the basket while going to work on the block like he was in both of the Nuggets’ playoff series. Jokic also shot a tick under 40% from 3 in the postseason last year. Right now he’s playing at a similar level.

The Nuggets’ locker room knows they need this Nikola Jokic to achieve their goals this season. Take this postgame sermon from Will Barton — who was also stellar against the Hawks and finished with 28 points (12 of 20 FG’s, 3 of 6 3FG’s), nine rebounds, and five assists — from Dec. 4 for example. That night the Nuggets fell 105-96 to the Lakers and Jokic finished with 13 points (4-12 FGs), five rebounds, and eight assists.

“We’ve got to play through him. Every year that’s what’s going to work best for us,” Barton said. “We’re a good team when he’s not scoring, but we’re a great team when he’s being dominant down there and we have championship potential when he’s cooking. And we know that. We can get away with it some games and beat teams, but to be the team that we want to be we’ve got to play through him.”

“Listen, this is his team. He has the ball in his hands the majority of the game. He’s making plays, he’s getting his touches. He just has to finish. Tonight I think had a tough couple of looks that just didn’t go down. I feel like with him missing right now, he’s thinking a little bit and he doesn’t need to think. He’s that good.”

Since that Lakers game, Jokic hasn’t done much thinking on the court. He’s just played. It’s led to some masterful performances like the 28-14-12 stat line Jokic registered against the Thunder last month, his 31-point triple-double against the Grizzlies a few weeks later when Jokic shot 12 of 19 from the field, and Monday’s career-high. There have been a couple hiccups along the way, like the Nuggets’ loss in Washington on Saturday, but those have been few and far between as of late.

The Nuggets needed an all-inclusive performance from Jokic against the Hawks. Jamal Murray shot just 3 of 9 from the field through three quarters but sunk three of his four field goal attempts in the fourth and had some key plays down the stretch. Gary Harris was given the impossible task of guarding Trae Young (29 points, 12 assists) while battling a migraine, per Malone, but struggled on offense and shot just 2 of 12 from the field. Paul Millsap scored two points in 24 minutes of action.

Monte Morris shined off the bench and chipped in 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting, and while Denver’s bench rotation which featured Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, and Mason Plumlee had some good moments, the Nuggets needed Jokic to be their bell cow.

He delivered.

The Nuggets don’t need Jokic to score 47 points every night to achieve their goals come April. But they do need this type of tone-setting aggressiveness from the big man in the playoffs if they want to improve on last season’s Western Conference semifinals appearance.


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