Before every home game for the past 2 1/2 years, Nikola Jokic and equipment manager Sparky Gonzales have staged a ping-pong match that draws a crowd inside the Denver Nuggets’ locker room.
Jokic claims he’s never lost — until Friday.
“I can beat him with my left hand, but today something (was) wrong,” Jokic said. “I’m pretty sure that he put something on my paddle.”
Jokic abruptly revealed this vital piece of information minutes after the latest dazzling performance of his blossoming NBA career. But that’s Jokic — always deflecting attention, always downplaying his immense impact on his team, always living up to his “Joker” nickname.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone won’t sugarcoat it. Without veteran all-star Paul Millsap — who is out for an extended period with a serious wrist injury — Jokic is Denver’s unquestioned go-to player. And the third-year center lived up that responsibility down the stretch Friday, scoring 14 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter and finishing with 13 rebounds and eight assists to spearhead a Nuggets’ 104-92 victory over the reeling Memphis Grizzlies at the Pepsi Center.
“(It) speaks to his ability and the fact that he can be our closer,” Malone said. “Obviously, we’re gonna be in this situation many more times, and hopefully it continues to go the way it did tonight.”
After a 20-point Nuggets second-half lead suddenly dwindled to two entering the fourth quarter, Jokic took over on both ends.
He scored Denver’s first six points of the frame. He drilled a 3-pointer with less than six minutes to go to put the Nuggets back up by double digits. With 1:10 left, he secured an offensive rebound and then converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to put the final stamp on the victory. He also totaled seven rebounds in the quarter and played “traffic cop” while directing Denver’s defense that held Memphis to 18 points in the final 12 minutes.
“I got into two post-ups and I scored, then I kind of got going,” Jokic said. “ … (It) opened the game for me.”
Jokic’s effort helped Denver (11-8) increase its home record to 8-2, including five victories in a row at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets shot 50.6 percent (including 65.8 percent in the first half), thrashed the Grizzlies 50-23 on the boards and forced a Memphis team that entered Friday with the fewest turnovers in the NBA into 18 giveaways that they converted into 29 points.
But the Nuggets needed the strong closeout because of a third quarter with too many turnovers (21 total), too many missed free throws (15-of-26 in all) and too many missed defensive assignments. Memphis, which has now lost seven games in a row, finished the frame on a 16-2 run, highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers by Tyreke Evans and Dillon Brooks and an alley-oop layup by Evans just before the buzzer.
Boxscore: Denver 104, Memphis 92
Jokic’s increased vocal leadership has been a popular topic in recent days, with Malone noting it started with a Monday conversation between coach and player in the lobby of the Nuggets’ Sacramento hotel. Jokic insists he did not walk onto the floor for Friday’s fourth quarter with the intention of dominating offensively. In fact, after he hit his 3-pointer, he pointed to Malone on the bench and yelled “Great call, Coach!”
“It’s not a great call,” Malone said. “It’s a great shot.”
But that’s another example of Jokic’s unselfish nature. So is abruptly mentioning the ping-pong game — the competition he lost Friday.
Jokic acknowledges he initially tried to trick the onlookers into believing he had beat Gonzales yet again. But they could not be fooled when Gonzales started running around yelling “Champion! Champion!”
Yet maybe that pregame match did have something to do with Jokic’s latest dazzling basketball performance.
“I kind of didn’t want to lose two things,” Jokic said.