OAKLAND, Calif — Michael Malone called Nikola Jokic into his hotel room for a meeting Sunday night. The coach could sense pressure mounting on the Nuggets’ third-year big man, leading to Jokic missing 17 of his 23 shots over Denver’s previous two games. Don’t try to be Superman, Malone told Jokic. Just take a breath, relax and play.
One night later against defending champion Golden State, Jokic returned to his joyful style that makes him one of the most entertaining and versatile players in the NBA. The Warriors ultimately spoiled Jokic’s first triple-double of the season by topping Denver 124-114 at Oracle Arena. But Jokic once again looked like an emerging star in compiling 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
“When he plays like he played tonight, you see an aggressiveness, a confidence an flair that not many players in the NBA have,” Malone said. “ … It spreads throughout the group that’s on the floor — and the group that’s on the bench, for that matter. Because at the end of the day, our guys are looking to him.”
Jokic began the contest assertively, hitting a 3-pointer, connecting on a hook shot and tipping in a miss by Jamal Murray (21 points, six assists) in the first four minutes. He had already recorded 12 points, eight rebounds and seven assists by halftime. He scored eight points in the first four minutes of the third quarter, sparking Denver’s 10-3 run to even the game at 67 on a Murray pull-up jumper. About a minute later, Jokic fed a nifty pass to Mason Plumlee for a game-tying reverse dunk. He notched the triple-double when he hit Gary Harris (22 points) for a driving layup about midway through the final period.
“I opened the game really good, and then I just continued to be aggressive and share the ball and tried to win game,” Jokic said. “That was my whole plan, just trying to win the game, because it’s always interesting against (the Warriors). I just tried to be the better team and the better player on the court against them.”
But Golden State, which played Monday without Most Valuable Player candidate Kevin Durant due to a calf strain, created distance by closing the third quarter on a 24-12 run, most of which while Jokic sat after getting the wind knocked out of him upon colliding with Warriors star Stephen Curry while defending a shot attempt. The highlight play of Golden State’s burst? A trademark 27-foot pull-up 3 from Curry, who finished with 32 points and nine assists.
The Nuggets (21-19) used a 7-0 spurt to close the gap to six points with less than two minutes to play, before Golden State finished off the win. Golden State‘s Draymond Green recorded a double-double with 23 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and three blocks. The Warriors shot 56.6 percent from the floor and 13-of-30 from 3-point distance, after going just 3-of-27 from long range in their home loss to Denver less than three weeks ago.
But Jokic arguably put together the game’s most dazzling performance. It was a dramatic shift from his passive efforts in Denver’s previous two games, sparking outside questions about Jokic’s fit at power forward alongside Plumlee in the Nuggets’ new-look starting lineup. Before Monday’s game, Malone spoke candidly about how opposing defenses were swarming Jokic, about mistimed and poorly executed passes to the 6-foot-10 Serbian in the post and about how Jokic’s teammates weren’t cutting at a proper rate around him.
Most importantly, though, Malone expressed concerned about Jokic the person. Hence, he called the Sunday-night meeting. Jokic downplayed the importance of that chat with his coach, but only because such check-ins happen often. That illustrates a level of communication and care that Jokic believes makes Malone unique.
“There’s not a lot of coaches in the league that (are) gonna just call me into his room and talk to me,” Jokic said. “(And say), ‘I see that something’s wrong with you. I want to help you.’ I appreciate that a lot, just because I think one of the few coaches who can do that.”
The Nuggets went 0-2 on their only multicity road trip in January, with two games at San Antonio and a visit to Staples Center to face the Clippers on tap later this month. The biggest silver lining for Denver? Jokic once again looked like an emerging star, compiling his first triple-double of the season against the defending champs.
“Let’s be honest — Nikola is the future of the Denver Nuggets,” Malone said. “ … I wanted to see him get back to enjoying the game of basketball.”