Sometimes, you just need a reminder.
During the midst of Nikola Jokić lifting the Denver Nuggets to victory with some absurd scoring during the fourth quarter and overtime against the New Orleans Pelicans last night, all I could do was laugh. Sitting next to my colleague Matt Moore at The Action Network on one side and Deputy Site Manager Brandon Ewing on the other, all we could do was laugh as we watched greatness unfold together.
Sitting on 16 points when he stepped on the floor with 10+ minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jokić willed the Nuggets to a comeback victory, scoring 30 points in a 15-minute span and finishing with 46 on the night. This added to a stat line that already saw him achieve a triple-double and brush up against a potential 5x5 game, all in the same night. The Pelicans had no way of stopping Jokić and sent relentless double teams his way down the stretch. It just didn’t matter. Jokić and the Nuggets found a way.
That really should be the thesis statement of the 2021-22 Nuggets. Jokić and the Nuggets found a way.
No matter what’s thrown Denver’s way this year, they’ve found a way to rise above potential pitfalls and claw their way to a strong record. 38-26 through 58 games shouldn’t be disparaged in any way. It’s not quite what the record was last season at this stage, but the Nuggets had Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray for the majority of the year. This year, it was just a few clearly hampered games from Porter before he had to sit down.
Since then, the Nuggets have had to figure out how to navigate new territory within the Jokić offense, and to be honest, it isn’t always enjoyable. Jokić is of course masterful most of the time, but to always know in the back of your mind that the Nuggets could be way better at full strength can be a curse. Seeing the final form of the team in all of its glory and then having that ripped away has put this season in suspended animation, as Zach Lowe coined in his latest Lowe Post podcast with former Stiffs head honcho Adam Mares.
Knowing that some of the game results don’t matter BECAUSE of that reality is fine for the time being, but I for one have struggled to find meaning in the season until the injury situation changes. For much of the year without Murray and Porter, the formula for Denver from game to game has been much of the same. It’s: “watch Jokić do Jokić things,” then “pray for the minutes while he sits on the bench,” then “hope Jokić and the starters can get back in control.” There have been occasional changes to the equation, like the introduction of Bones Hyland to the rotation, trading for Bryn Forbes, and signing DeMarcus Cousins, and that has made the non-Jokić minutes far more palatable, perhaps even positive.
But it just hasn’t been the same without Murray and Porter. Getting the taste of offensive dominance from Murray in the Bubble, and for a large chunk of the 2020-21 season, was just so tantalizing. The brief span after the Aaron Gordon trade was perhaps the brightest timeline for the Nuggets franchise.
These Nuggets haven’t fully lived up to that, but perhaps that isn’t the correct perspective in the first place. Perhaps that isn’t a fair expectation.
For one, any team that’s playing without their second and third best players is going to suffer. Looking around the league, the Golden State Warriors without Draymond Green are an excellent example, as they are 2-8 in their last 10 games. The Brooklyn Nets in their...situation...have been difficult to watch for much of the season, and even though they just got Kevin Durant back, they are 0-2 since he returned and are currently a ninth seed because the rest of the roster just isn’t good enough.
The Nuggets certainly aren’t the only team dealing with injuries, and perhaps that’s a fair way to explain away the lack of fun at times. There hasn’t been a lot of room for fun this year. The Nuggets have had to scratch and claw just to remain about water, fending off the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers for a top six playoff seed. There’s been very little opportunity to stop and smell the roses.
Last night’s game offers a great opportunity to simply appreciate the basketball being played instead.
The Pelicans are a good basketball team. They were 4-0 since the All-Star break, dominating the competition with Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum. There’s a lot of things going well for them right now even though they have a 27-37 record. Their offense is legit, and they have some legitimate stoppers on the defensive end too.
Nikola Jokić absolutely eviscerated them.
Jokić’s combination of brute force strength, deft shooting touch, and elite basketball IQ all coalesced into one of the greatest 15-minute stretches of basketball I’ve ever seen played. He expertly navigated double teams, manipulated defenders, assisted his teammates, and offered up a level of willpower saved for only the best of scorers. He willed the Nuggets back into a game they should have lost. Undoubtedly.
It was beautiful. A truly artistic moment that Nuggets fans will cherish forever. They know that despite all of the odds, everything is possible with Jokić. He turns the impossible into the improbable all the time with his incredible skill level at his size, and it was only a matter of time before he turned the dial all the way up to 11 and earned a victory for his team as a pure scorer. He’s done it in a variety of ways all year, but this was a new one, and it was so fun to watch.
Basketball is supposed to be fun. It’s a game, one that people enjoy watching the best and most skilled athletes in the world compete on a regular basis. Having the opportunity to watch Nikola Jokić play basketball should be enough to excite every NBA fan, not just the basketball nerds that love the nuances of his game. It’s too bad that circumstances out of Nuggets fans’ control have limited the opportunities to see Jokić regularly, because he truly is one of the best shows in the NBA.
So, for the fans like me that have struggled to enjoy the season on a night to night basis due to the injuries, it’s time to wake up and smell the roses. Greatness is abound. Jokić has turned what could have been an awful season into an entertaining one almost by himself, and his unique ability to make things work with just about any teammate has aided the Nuggets along the way. The Nuggets are 38-26 and in pole position to reach the playoffs while avoiding the play-in tournament, which is all anyone can be asked to do with Murray and Porter sidelined.
The hope of course is that Murray and Porter don’t remain sidelined for too long. Both are making progress, and Porter’s return appears to be on the horizon within the next few weeks. Whether Murray makes his way back or not remains to be seen, but if he is able to get back on the court in any capacity, it would be a major emotional lift for both the team and the fanbase in so many ways.
But even if they didn’t come back, it’s important to appreciate what Jokić and the Nuggets have given through the first 64 games of the regular season. Aaron Gordon is staying aggressive. Will Barton broke the franchise record for threes. Monte Morris has steadied the ship as a facilitator for Jokić. Jeff Green has replaced the size and versatility of Michael Porter Jr. in the starting lineup. The bench has also had its moments, especially lately, led by Bones Hyland, Bryn Forbes, and DeMarcus Cousins among others. Getting to this point is an achievement in it of itself, and the Nuggets are surely exhausted by the effort.
The Nuggets are doing what they can, led by a superstar being pushed to his limit. Rather than complain about it and make excuses, the Nuggets have instead pushed forward through the obstacles in their path. They’ve been commendable for 80% of the regular season, and they’re close to the finish line.
Can the team outlast the fatigue, get back some reinforcements, and make a run in the playoffs behind one of the most dominant players in NBA history? Maybe. We will see.
Until then, let’s just enjoy the ride.