Home NEWS How Nikola Jokic got his groove, and the Nuggets’ mojo, back on...

How Nikola Jokic got his groove, and the Nuggets’ mojo, back on track

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Welcome back, Big Guy.

Where ya been?

“You’re happy that you didn’t miss,” Nikola Jokic said of his game-winning shot late Friday night — a dagger from 20 feet with Philadelphia guard Josh Richardson in his grill — that helped the Nuggets sink the 76ers, 100-97. “You’re happy the ball went in … but you never can be 100 percent sure.

“It felt good.”

Did it ever.

“That’s the Nikola we need,” guard Will Barton said.

“When you’re an MVP-caliber player, eventually (that) shot’s going to go,” forward Paul Milsap said.

“That’s what he does,” guard Gary Harris said.

Only up until Friday, it’s just that he’d been doing — well, less of it.

Philadelphia Joker was vintage Joker, last year’s Joker, MVP-worthy Joker: 26 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, 10 makes on 22 shots.

Everything was back, everything you fell in love with. The shooting touch. The savvy. The fearlessness. The fire.

Especially the fire.

“I was one of his biggest cheerleaders,” Barton said. “I love that from him.”

They need that from him. And given a Western Conference that’s wild, wicked and — given Golden State’s death spiral — wide open, they need it now more than ever.

“He’s almost selfless to a fault, when you look at some of the stuff that he’s done,” former NBA forward and current NBA TV analyst Caron Butler said of Jokic. “He’s always had to be encouraged about being offensive-minded, just staying aggressive, because he’s just always trying to keep guys involved.

“I think that, with his production, he has to continue to understand, with him being sometimes a little more selfish and not selfless all the time, that’s going to encourage and help those around him … his aggressiveness, it has to stay up to par. And I think when he’s featured and doing that, he helps other people.”

“Give him some time”

Jokic’s first seven games weren’t helping anyone, least of all Nuggets faithful who wondered what kind of Kryptonite had suddenly turned the NBA’s Serbian Superman into Clark Kent.

There was a 4-for-15 night in Sacramento. A 4-for-12 clunker against the Heat. The numbers were wonky. The defense was spotty. At times, the body language — especially during a 15-point loss at New Orleans on Halloween — looked even worse.

Half of the haters on social media fired up fat jokes. The other half pondered if playing for his native Serbia in the FIBA World Cup in September had sapped some of that early-season mojo.

Through his first seven appearances, Jokic was averaging 14.9 points per game, down nearly seven points from his 21.6 average over that same span in 2018-19; nabbing 9.7 rebounds per game, down a full board from the first seven games of last season; and notching 5.9 assists per game, down more than a dime from the pace set an autumn ago.

Joker’s field-goal percentage? Down almost nine points (54.3% then, 46% now). The 3-point field goal accuracy? Off by nearly 15 points (44.0% then, 29.6% now).

“People want those dominant performances from him, and it’ll happen,” Barton said. “It’ll happen, guys. You get in slumps during the middle of the season; he’s starting off a little slow early in the season. Does it make a big difference when he does it? Because it happens. We’re still winning. I trust that he’ll be there. Just give him some time.”

After missing 8 of 12 attempts against Miami last Tuesday in a 109-89 win over the Heat, Jokic raised a few eyebrows when he insisted to reporters that, “it’s not one player. They (the Nuggets) don’t depend on me. They’re really good by themselves. They’re playing really good without me.”

But as Butler pointed out and Friday underscored, they’re better with him. Better when he’s aggressive. Better when he’s a little selfish. Better when he’s a factor.

“When he says stuff like that, I think people try to read into it the wrong way,” Barton noted.

“What he’s saying is that there’s no one bigger than he team — not even him. When you have a superstar like that, what more can you ask for?”

“Whenever we need him, he will be there”

And yet Jokic remains a superstar with something to prove. Not to us, of course, but to the pundits and fashionistas on either coast, the ones who don’t watch him every night, the ones who can’t fathom how a non-traditional frame and non-traditional game can somehow set the bar.

The ones who moped the hardest last month when a survey of league general managers overwhelmingly tapped Jokic (48% of the vote), and not the Sixers’ Joel Embiid (28%) nor the Lakers’ Anthony Davis (17%), as the best center in the game right now.

“He wants to build a championship with this team,” forward Juancho Hernangomez said. “He wants to elevate this team to another level. Maybe sometimes he’ll step back … but whenever we need him, he will be there.”

Jokic was there Friday, a blue colossus, draining more shots (seven) in the fourth quarter than Philadelphia managed, collectively, as a team (five).

The Serbian outscored the Sixers by himself over the final 12 minutes, 16-13. He outpointed Embiid, 16-4, and, for the coup de grace, forced Philly’s loquacious big man to foul out during an inbounds scrap with 0.9 ticks left on the clock.

“(Jokic) shot the ball,” point guard Monte Morris explained. “I mean, that was the whole thing.

“As of late, he was just turning down shots. You see, when he’s aggressive, how much faster we play, how much better. When he’s shooting the ball, everybody else gets open.”

To wit: The Nuggets’ only two losses to date this season have come in the only two games in which the Joker has taken fewer than 10 shots.

When you’re an MVP-caliber player, you’re the first line on the scouting report. When you’re an MVP-caliber player, you don’t rise to the occasion. The occasion rises to you.

“Now (he’s) getting everyone’s best effort and best shot,” Butler said. “This is just an adjustment period. He has to evaluate what people are doing and their sense of urgency — and then have the same sense of urgency himself going forward. And I think he’ll be fine.”

Welcome back, Big Guy.

The floor is yours.

Always was.

“He knows how good he is,” Barton laughed. “(Expletive), I know. I know for him, if he doesn’t want to know.

“He’ll be him. I don’t have any panic, any fear. The big fella’s going to be him. Just give it time. And I don’t think he’s playing bad. I just feel like he’s not shooting yet. When he starts shooting, y’all know what’s going to happen.”

Friday happens.

Magic happens.

After all, that’s what he does.


CHART

JOKER’S UNLUCKY SEVEN

The Nuggets (6-2) are getting out of the gate almost as hot as they did last year (7-1). More impressively, they’ve done it without gaudy statistical contributions from All-Star center Nikola Jokic, at least compared to November 2018. Here’s how the Joker’s stats compare through his first seven appearances this year compared to last season over the same span:

2018-19: 21.6 points per game, 10.6 rebounds per game, 7.1 assists per game, .543 FG percentage, .440 3-point percentage

2019-20: 14.9 points per game, 9.7 rebounds per game, 5.9 assists per game, .460 FG percentage, .296 3-point percentage

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

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