The whistle stopped action cold 58 seconds into the second half, and as the ball careened through the hoop and off his right shoulder, Nikola Jokic rested both hands on his hips and sighed.
Foul No. 5 just stacked more agony onto a 13-point deficit on the road that would soon swell to 18.
But there’s a reason Jokic owns the title of two-time Kia MVP.
“I know that [he’s done] a really good job throughout his career of playing with four, five fouls,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Thank goodness he was able to do that again tonight.”
Jokic reeled off 24 points — including 11 in the decisive fourth quarter — over just 21 minutes to help Denver rally from an 18-point deficit Wednesday as the Nuggets bested Indiana, 122-119, for their fourth consecutive victory in the midst of a four-game road trip that commences Friday in Boston’s TD Garden (7 ET, NBA TV) against a Celtics team led by a pair of MVP candidates in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
After picking up his fifth foul early in the third quarter, Jokic didn’t reenter the contest until the 9:08 mark of the final frame with his team now trailing by five. Denver got back in the game behind the third-quarter shooting of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bones Hyland, who combined to hit 66.7% from range. The 27-year-old Jokic quickly poured in seven points over a span of a minute and 30 seconds.
“I knew I couldn’t wait too much longer [to put Jokic back into the game] because then he’s been sitting for, real time, like 45 minutes,” Malone explained. “It’s tough to tell a guy that’s been sitting for 45 minutes, ‘Alright, now come in and win the game for us.’ ”
While you can’t grant Jokic sole credit for Wednesday night’s comeback, his performance in the face of adverse circumstances on the road is the stuff MVP candidacies are made of — voter fatigue be damned. Even though Jokic’s scoring (21.2 ppg) and rebounding numbers (9.9 rpg) are down from his last two MVP seasons, his 9.0 apg would be a career-high if it holds.
The Celtics enter Friday’s matchup led by an explosive pair in Tatum and Brown, who have combined for a total of 11 30-point outings over the first 11 games. Boston has won three contests by 15 points or more while shooting 50% or better in five of them.
Tatum tips off a slight shakeup among the top five of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder by leapfrogging four slots to No. 3, while Jokic inches up to seventh from ninth. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo maintains his grip on the No. 1 ranking, and Phoenix superstar guard Devin Booker falls to sixth.
And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 31.8 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 5.3 apg
He sat out two of Milwaukee’s last three games, and the last time Antetokounmpo played, the Bucks suffered their first loss of the season on Monday in Atlanta. In that game, the former two-time MVP committed five turnovers and finished at a minus-22. (Both he and Jrue Holiday have already been ruled out for Friday’s game in San Antonio.) The 27-year-old continues to battle left knee soreness, but it appears Milwaukee is keeping Antetokounmpo out for precautionary reasons. The clash against the Spurs closes the Bucks’ current three-game road trip, and they won’t play again until Monday, giving Antetokounmpo plenty of time to recover.
2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 33.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 7.9 apg
You knew it would finally come to an end. Orlando held the superstar guard to fewer than 30 points on Wednesday for the first time all season, and he finished with 24 points in a 94-87 loss to end a streak of nine straight outings with 30 points or more. The next night, in a 113-105 loss at Washington, Doncic scored a season-low 22 points on 8-of-21 shooting to go with five turnovers. Dallas had won four in a row before these last two setbacks, but the Mavericks play their next five at home. So, you can expect Doncic to quickly get back on track.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Last week’s ranking: No. 7
Season stats: 31.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 4.1 apg
Tatum scored a total of 70 points in his last two games, lighting up the Grizzlies on the road for 39 points on Monday, before dropping 16 of his 31 points in the third quarter of Wednesday’s victory over the Detroit Pistons. Tatum has now notched six 30-point games this season, including three outings in which he drilled five or more 3-pointers. Tatum’s four-spot jump in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder represents a much-needed correction in the rankings. After all, he became the first player in Celtics history to post more than 100 points through the first three games of a season … and he hasn’t slowed down.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 31.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.8 apg
Racked up 30 points or more in five of his last six games, but after winning eight in a row from Oct. 22 to Nov. 6, the Cavaliers have lost two straight to the LA Clippers and the Sacramento Kings. Mitchell’s drop in the rankings isn’t an indictment on him as much as it is a credit to the work that Tatum is putting in. After all, Mitchell is the only player in the league with multiple games in which he’s knocked down eight or more 3-pointers, and he’s averaging career highs in several statistical categories.
5. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 28.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6.9 apg
Has led Memphis to wins in four of its last five games heading into Friday’s battle at home against the Timberwolves, and he’s coming off two-straight 30-point outings. Opponents have become so worried about Morant’s blow-by ability that they’re allowing uncontested 3-pointers that the superstar point guard is happily draining. He’s not a high-volume shooter from deep, but that improvement in his game has become almost as deadly as his floater in the paint. “Now, guys have to account for me shooting the trey-ball and the mid-range pull-up,” Morant said Wednesday night. “It just opened up more levels of my game.”
The Next Five:
6. Devin Booker (Last week’s ranking: No. 5)
7. Nikola Jokic (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
8. Kevin Durant (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
9. Damian Lillard (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
10. Stephen Curry (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Paul George, LA Clippers; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks.
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