Nuggets remain on top in West halfway through season
AP Sports Writer
DENVER — Nikola Jokic is happiest when he’s simply dribbling the ball up the floor. Or so the Denver Nuggets big man has been told.
“My godfather,” Jokic said, “is always telling me, ‘You look so happy when you’re dribbling. You don’t even need to shoot or pass it. Just punt it into the stands.’”
Now that would be something new for Jokic. Or just keep doing what he’s doing.
Led by Jokic’s All-Star-level play, the Nuggets are out front in the Western Conference at the halfway mark of the season. They ride a 12-game home win streak into their showdown Tuesday against Golden State — the team everyone figured would be leading the West.
“We’re doing good right now,” Jokic said.
At 29-13, the Nuggets are tied for their best NBA start in franchise history with a 1976-77 squad that featured David Thompson and Dan Issel. This also marks the latest in a season the team has led the conference since March 16, 1977.
It’s a tenuous lead, though, and just a half-game ahead of the Warriors (29-14), who’ve won four straight. The Nuggets beat Golden State 100-98 at home on Oct. 21 thanks to Juancho Hernangomez swatting away a shot at the buzzer.
Denver has been difficult to beat at the Pepsi Center, boasting a league-best 18-3 record. The team’s play at home inspired coach Michael Malone to utter this retort directed at all the opposing fans showing up at the arena: “Take that ‘L’ on the way out.” The phrase has now found its way onto T-shirts.
What truly makes teams uncomfortable is facing the multi-dimensional Jokic, who’s averaging 19.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists this season. He’s having a season that just may earn him an All-Star appearance, which would be Denver’s first since Carmelo Anthony in 2011.
“Jokic, he’s the best passing big in the league,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers recently said. “I don’t know who would be in that category other than him.”
The Serbian center certainly stepped up this weekend. On Saturday, the Nuggets lost to a Phoenix Suns squad that’s last in the West. Jokic sensed his team needed a boost against Portland on the second night of a back-to-back. He delivered with 40 points and 10 rebounds in a 116-113 win as the Nuggets improved to 6-0 in the Northwest Division .
“We were kind of loose. We were not focused,” Jokic said. “I tried to take advantage and do whatever.”
Jokic pairs nicely with point guard Jamal Murray to form a powerful tandem. It’s proving difficult to contain, with Murray averaging 18.5 points and 4.9 assists.
“It’s a lot of strain on our defense,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said. “You have two guys who are capable playmakers, passers/scorers out there. … This team has multiple ways of scoring.”
Murray and Jokic have built quite the chemistry. Take, for instance, a play against the Clippers in a win last Thursday, when Jokic grabbed a one-handed rebound, quickly pivoted and lobbed a full-court pass over a defender to Murray for an easy dunk.
“We have a connection,” Murray said. “He’s got the I.Q. to make that kind of pass and we’ve been doing that all season.”
Here’s something else: They’re beginning to get starters back from injury. Paul Millsap returned from a fractured right big toe in late December, while Will Barton took the floor over the weekend after missing 38 games following hip/core muscle surgery. Gary Harris worked his way back from an ailing hip before being sidelined again with a tight hamstring. He should return soon.
And waiting in the wings is veteran guard Isaiah Thomas, who’s been sidelined all season as he recovers from hip surgery.
“We have a lot of fun,” Murray said. “Basketball is always good when you are having fun.”