The story of the Denver Nuggets’ Sunday win over the Toronto Raptors—well, the one that isn’t Raptors head coach Nick Nurse calling out officials for not giving whistles to Kawhi Leonard—was Jamal Murray going nuts late, scoring 15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to complete a comeback over the East’s best team. Murray drilled baseline runners and elbow jumpers off the bounce, catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and turnaround fadeaways, and even sprinkled in a game-icing finger roll, all delivered with precisely the kind of swashbuckling swagger we’ve come to expect from the 21-year-old. The Nuggets were down, and then Murray caught fire, and then they weren’t: It was clean, recognizable star shit.
Sometimes, though, stardom isn’t so loud. Sometimes it’s making a decisive move when you’re down by 13 and just getting a bucket to stop the bleeding. Or sliding your feet in the pick-and-roll to hang with the most dangerous guy on the other team, forcing him to think enough about you that he ignores your teammate’s swiping hands and turns the ball over. Or earning a trip to the line that can open the door to an offensive rebound and a momentum-swinging 3-pointer. Or creating the space in a congested lane to seal a defender for a layup in the closing seconds of the quarter.
Nothing Nikola Jokic did in the final three minutes and 55 seconds of Sunday’s third quarter was especially eye-popping (and certainly not as flashy as his blind reverse finish over Serge Ibaka). But without it—without him trudging and plunging his way into the close-up looks and free throw attempts that built an 11-2 quarter-closing run—Denver wouldn’t have clawed back to get within two possessions heading into the fourth. That’s star shit too.
Maybe the Nuggets would’ve wound up catching and overtaking Toronto late anyway; after all, the Raptors were on their fifth game in their fifth different city in seven nights, playing without starters Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam and key reserves Fred VanVleet and Jonas Valanciunas. But thanks to Jokic, they didn’t need to. When the Nuggets most needed something to keep them afloat, he was there … including in the last two minutes Sunday, with Toronto still within striking distance, until Jokic bulldozed his way into the paint to put them away:
Denver has needed a lot from its Serbian center lately. A rash of injuries have sidelined Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap, testing the Nuggets’ vaunted depth and leaving them vulnerable to a fall in the Western Conference, where everybody but the Suns can be dangerous (and even they’ve won two in a row!). And yet, even with three starters (and offseason additions Isaiah Thomas and rookie Michael Porter Jr.) on the shelf, Denver has kept rolling, thanks in large part to the burly playmaker’s preternatural gift for generating good looks for himself and his teammates.
The walking-wounded Nuggets have won three straight, with wins over Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Toronto, three of the NBA’s five stingiest half-court defenses, according to Cleaning the Glass. Despite an injury list that has forced head coach Mike Malone to shuffle his rotations and matchups in some interesting ways, the Nuggets are 20-9, a half-game ahead of Golden State atop the West, marking the latest in a season they’ve been in first place in the conference since 1984. That they’ve continued to win is a testament to the array of talent they’ve found with non-premium draft picks over the years, as players like Juancho Hernangomez (the 15th pick in the 2016 NBA draft), Malik Beasley (19th in 2016), Monte Morris (51st in 2017), and Torrey Craig (undrafted in 2014, signed after several years playing in Australia and New Zealand) continue to make a big impact. But president of basketball operations Tim Connelly’s had no bigger hit on that score than Jokic, plucked from the Adriatic League with the 41st pick in 2014 and now the focal point of a team with designs on its first deep playoff run in a decade.
Jokic has sustained the injured Nuggets, averaging 25.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.3 steals in 35.3 minutes per game in the four contests since Millsap went down. He’s shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 88.9 percent from the foul line on nearly seven attempts a night in that span, an uptick in free throw rate perhaps born out of the awareness that his short-handed team could use some more freebies. He’s also holding up in bigger minutes in a sometimes-awkward pairing with backup center turned starting power forward Mason Plumlee, which has helped Denver maintain its vastly improved defense, one of the big stories of the early season. The Nuggets have allowed a microscopic 89.1 points per 100 possessions when the two bigs share the floor this season and have continued to defend at a top-five level even without Millsap and Harris, two of their best stoppers.
”[Jokic is] doing what he’s supposed to do,” Malone told reporters Sunday. “He’s our franchise player. We’ve committed to him. We’ve believed in him. He’s the future of this team. Whether we have guys out or we have a full roster, we expect a lot from Nikola. I think with Gary, Will, and Paul all out, we’ve seen kind of like down the stretch last year [where] Nikola steps up and contributes to the win in many different ways.”
Jokic finished the 2017-18 campaign by averaging 24 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks over his final 18 games, shooting a scorching 47.6 percent from 3-point range, and shouldering the offensive load for a Nuggets team in a tooth-and-nail fight with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the West’s final playoff spot that came down to the last night of the season. But even though Jokic poured in 35 points on 14-for-25 shooting to go with 10 rebounds in 46-plus minutes, Denver fell short, losing to Minnesota in overtime.
The loss was disappointing, but that closing kick, and that performance in what was ostensibly a Game 7 to get into the postseason, proved that Jokic deserved to be the Nuggets’ new foundational piece. They didn’t hesitate to offer him a max extension of his dirt-cheap second-round rookie contract as soon as free agency opened in July, turning one of the sport’s biggest bargains into one of its highest-paid players.
Save for a precipitous drop-off in 3-point accuracy and a brief early November blip in which he seemed almost unwilling to shoot—an extension of his commitment to “playing the right way” by passing up a decent shot for himself if he can get a great one for someone else—Jokic has earned his money. He’s the linchpin of a Nuggets squad that has the NBA’s best record against other good teams, and he’s on pace to become just the fifth player ever to average at least 17 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game in a season. It’s an awfully exclusive list: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, and Russell Westbrook.
All four of those players have Most Valuable Player hardware in their trophy cases. It still feels hard to envision Jokic hoisting his own in a league stacked with transcendent players who more neatly conform to our established understanding of what MVP-caliber superstars look like. But if Jokic continues to carry Denver through the kind of injury-ravaged rough patch that could derail a season, he’s going to start muscling his way up the ballot and into the sort of rarefied air that his statistical production would indicate he deserves.
WNBA legend Sue Bird, whom the Nuggets front office recently brought in as a basketball operations associate, gave an interesting answer when Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post recently asked her what she values most highly in a basketball player: “An understanding of who you are is by far the best quality.” Last season’s playoff push and this post-injury surge suggest that, at just 23 years old, Jokic is growing to understand who he is: someone capable of elevating his game when his team needs him most and of performing like the best player on the floor every night. To weather the storm until they start getting some of their injured contributors back, the Nuggets need him to do just that—to be a star, loudly, quietly, and any other way he can.