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Red-Hot Jokić Leads Nuggets to the Brink of Eighth Playoff Spot
It is a fun cat and mouse game, getting Nikola Jokić to discuss all the things he does on the court in a meaningful way. Media asks. Jokić deflects. There is no question the Nuggets do-everything center doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk of a true team player.
Others? They have no problem talking about their lead player. They’ll crow all day along about Jokic. And he’s been at his best in the last three weeks, quietly embracing the role he has been groomed to play – a star trying to carry his team to the playoffs. And Nuggets coach Michael Malone, for one, could not wait to shout it from the mountaintop.
“I’ve said it before: He won’t get any recognition for this season,” Malone said. “What he does every single night, and how efficiently he does it, there’s not many players that do that. Obviously, he Nikola Jokić, we’re Denver, so nobody is going to talk about it. But he’s an incredible player. We ask him to do so much for this team, as a third-year player, trying to carry this team. … He accepts it. He embraces it, and he goes out and does it almost every night at a very high level.”
Tuesday night, Jokić was at it again. His 30 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals led the Nuggets to a 107-104 win over the Indiana Pacers, their third straight victory, and with it put themselves right on the doorstep of being back in the top eight of the Western Conference.
The Nuggets are a half-game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth spot. The Pelicans face Memphis in a home game on Wednesday night. A New Orleans loss would put the Nuggets into eighth by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. They beat the Pelicans in two of three games this season.
Jokić has been as good as it gets in doing the heavy lifting on a nightly basis in bringing the Nuggets back to this point.
In 14 games since March 7, Jokić has averaged 24.5 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks. He’s shooting 56.4 percent from the field and a blistering 50 percent from the 3-point line. Jokić has four 30-point games in this stretch, he’s got eight double-doubles and two triple doubles. The Nuggets are 8-3 in the games in which he scored at least 20 points.
“He does everything,” said Will Barton, on how difficult the Nuggets are to face with Jokić playing at this level. “Now you don’t know what to play him for, because he’s scoring, he’s passing, he’s rebounding, it’s all over the place. It makes the game easier for us. I don’t know the shot range or how many points he needs to score, we just need him to look at the basket and be a threat.”
Jokić was a big threat on Tuesday night. He had 10 points in the second quarter and put in 15 more in the second half. With Jokić leading, the Nuggets navigated what was a sticky Pacers defense. Their offense never had great flow, but it always found a way to score.
Barton was another big reason why. He put in 26 points with 10 rebounds – his second straight game of 10 boards. He got the Nuggets started by scoring the team’s first nine points in the first quarter. Overall, the Nuggets led by as many as 14 points but never pulled away. They did, however, always have a good foothold in matters all night long.
At the center of it all was Jokić. In vintage Jokić style, he said he has been looking to be more aggressive of late. Kind of.
“As long as I can take open shots or good shots, I’m going to take it,” Jokić said. “Maybe I’m a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more looking for my shot. But I think it’s the same.”
No matter what it is, the Nuggets will no doubt take it.
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter