On Saturday night, the Denver Nuggets will begin a homestand that will see them play 11 of their next 15 games at home. That stretch of basketball games will go a long way toward determining whether or not the team makes the playoffs and what kind of seed they will get. This stretch also marks a sort of reset on the season. Until a few games ago, the Nuggets had spent the better part of December with some of their key players in and out of the lineup. So while the team is still a comfortable 19-16 through 35 games, the team has an opportunity to gain some separation from some of the western conference teams that are all piled together in the standings.
One key for the Nuggets over this stretch will be leadership. Leadership and accountability have been buzzwords for the Nuggets ever since Paul Millsap went down back in November. Millsap was brought in to be the team’s leader on and off of the court but his wrist injury has changed some of those dynamics. In the absence of Millsap, head coach Michael Malone has turned toward Nikola Jokic and tried to speed along the young phenom’s development and maturity as a leader.
“I think he’s improving. I really do. And I think he’s improving because he’s making a concerted effort to improve. And I think the point that really kind of hit home with him was I told him, ‘whether you like this or not, whether you think it’s fair or not fair, you are our leader. You are our best player.’”
One of the areas that Jokic has most needed to improve has been in the way that he handles adversity, especially with regards to referees. Jokic has already received three technical fouls and one flagrant 2 foul in just 28 games. His frustration with referees isn’t nearly as noticeable as it was last season when he routinely got intentional fouls to show up a questionable call but his mannerisms and reactions to bad calls still don’t hide his disapproval and Malone believes it is leading to a reputation.
“I would say, let’s be honest. If they want to admit it or not, just like coaches talk, players talk, referees talk. There are players that I’m sure some referees think are tough to referee and I think Nikola sometimes has brought some of that on himself.”
“In the past when he would not get a call or something didn’t go his way he’d take a silly foul, take a bad shot, or just put his hands up. And I called him out in practice a few times this year and I’ve talked to him about it after the season and during the summer. He realizes that, he understands the importance and the fact that all eyes are on him. I think he’s embraced that and improved in that area and hopefully that will continue to move in the right direction.”
When asked if he thought Jokic should be an all-star this season, Malone didn’t hesitate.
“Personally, I thought he was an all-star last year. From December 15th on you look at the numbers he was putting up...I don’t know if anyone in the NBA was putting up the numbers he was putting up. So obviously I’m biased, I admit that but I thought he was all-star last year and I think he is an all-star this year. For us to play the way we’ve been playing without Paul Millsap, I mean we gave that guy $30 million for a reason and we’ve been able to weather the storm, to your point. How’d we do that? Nikola Jokic steps up. Scoring, rebounding, playmaking, defense. I think Nikola Jokic is one of the best big men in the NBA and is more than deserving of being an all-star.”
While he believes Jokic to be the team’s best player, he doesn’t think that the Nuggets ticket to success is putting the ball in one player’s hands and asking them to win a close game. He also said that he doesn’t think there is any one player that the team should rely on in every close game.
“I think each game will dictate that. And obviously before Paul getting hurt, he was our go to guy. I mean, we won close games. Games that jump out, Miami game, Atlanta on the road, OKC. Where he was a guy we were getting the ball in his hands, he’s going to score, get double teamed, get fouled, or make the right play. With Paul going out, yes we will still go to Nikola, he’ll be sort of our go to guy. But we have so many weapons that it might be Gary Harris one night, could be Jamal one night, could be Trey Lyles, could be Nikola.”
“What I liked about our execution in Minnesota the other night was, you look at the great looks we had in overtime: Nikola has Tyus Jones on his back and misses a shot he makes 99 times out of 100 times. He gets a corner three that goes in and out. Jamal Murray off of a great execution side out of bounds gets a high percentage shot. So I think we can continue to play the way we’re playing. We’re almost an equal opportunity offense. We find...the open man is the go to man.
Come join us for Stiffs Night Out next Saturday, January 6th at The Celtic on Market. Stiffs Night Out is our Denver Nuggets watch party that we hold 2 or 3 times per season. Super Mascot Rocky and the Denver Nuggets Dancers will be there and there will be prizes and giveaways including memorabilia and tickets to upcoming Nuggets games at Pepsi Center. All ages are welcome. This is a great chance to meet fellow die-hard Nuggets fans and watch the Nuggets play in a fun and lively atmosphere.
The Nuggets will be in Sacramento to take on the Kings, a very winnable matchup that should provide a great game for a watch party. It’s free to attend and the Celtic has great food and drink menus that include both traditional Irish fare and bar classics like burgers, wings, draft beer, and more.
The Celtic is located at 1400 Market St. Denver CO. Tipoff is at 8:00pm. The party begins at 7:00pm and will go until the game ends.