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Jokić Turns in Huge Fourth Quarter, Leads Nuggets Past Grizzlies
In so many ways, this season has been the exact start Nikola Jokic had hoped for. It started with a renewed focus on defense. It has continued with a heightened focus on leadership – on always being there when the Nuggets need him.
The Nuggets needed him on Friday night.
The Memphis Grizzlies had chopped a 20-point lead down to one, going into the fourth quarter. Moments were tense in the Pepsi Center. But Jokić eased all concerns by simply taking over. He made all of the important plays down the stretch in the Nuggets’ eventual 104-92 win. Jokić’s 14 fourth quarter points was the beacon that brought the Nuggets’ boat to shore.
But this was by no means the first time he’s come through. It’s been multiple occasions. From hammering the nail in the Hawks’ coffin with a big jumper with one minute remaining, or being active in huddles and vocally in Sacramento, or coming back out of the locker room in Houston with the team down by more than 30 points on a sprained ankle he could have rested, Jokić’s leadership and reliability this season has been off the charts.
“He is really trying,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “And it’s not easy. I told him when I went to Serbia when the season ended, your mental toughness, how you handle yourself in adverse situations is so important for us. When things didn’t go his way in the past, he kind of gave into it. I see a young man right now that is learning how to fight through adversity, which is never easy for any of us. But he’s trying, he’s making the effort, he’s making strides.”
Jokić finished with a near triple-double of 28 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, leading the Nuggets to an 8-2 record at home. He deflected any talk about how much growth he’s made in his leadership.
“Maybe in the huddles I say something more,” Jokić said. “But I say it…not to become a leader, it’s just to help my team out. I don’t want to say something just to be a leader. I think we have enough players – Wilson (Chandler), Gary (Harris), Will Barton. I just wanted to help my team.”
Malone talked more about Jokić’s growth.
“I grabbed him in the hotel lobby in Sacramento and said ‘listen, there’s no Wilson, there’s no Paul, there’s no me. What a great opportunity for you to step up and be a leader. … These guys are looking to you now,’” Malone said. “And he embraced it that night. And I thought he embraced it in Houston. I think he’s headed in the right direction in that regard, and I’m proud of him for it.”
Malone was also proud of a Nuggets team that turned up the defense in the fourth quarter to come away with the win. They outscored Memphis 28-18 to seal the victory. The combination of Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Kenneth Faried, Jokić and Gary Harris played virtually the entire fourth together.
“We start that fourth quarter on a 13-5 run, regain control, force them to call a couple of timeouts,” Malone said. “And just think about the group that we did it with…that’s four young guys, that in a very tough situation, had poise, stepped up. It was really kind of a character, gut win.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.