Nuggets narrowly miss playoffs, find cornerstone in Jokic
DENVER — Nikola Jokic had absolutely no clue about his final stats until an assistant coach informed him a day after the season ended. No idea whatsoever. Not his points (16.7). Not his rebounds (9.8). Not his assists (4.9).
The Denver Nuggets big man preferred not knowing, so he didn’t get hung up on numbers.
That sort of focus might’ve worked wonders for the youthful Nuggets down the stretch as they narrowly lost out to Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.
“The playoff (chase) was too much pressure for us,” Jokic said Thursday after the team missed the postseason for a fourth straight season. “Every game, it’s like, ‘Oh, the playoffs — if we lose this, we’re not going to make the playoffs.’… Just play the game as normal.”
Still, the Nuggets (40-42) improved by seven games over a season ago. This despite using 32 different lineups and finishing 3-12 in games where they were behind by one or tied in the final minute, according to research on NBA.com.
“For us to make the run we did, with all the injuries we had, all the young players we were playing, was remarkable,” said coach Michael Malone , who finished up his second season with Denver.
Even more, the Nuggets found the centerpiece to build around in Jokic , who recorded six triple-doubles. General manager Tim Connelly said the 6-foot-10 Serbian is on the brink of becoming a transcendent player.
First, though, some rest.
Jokic’s exhausted after a long season on the heels of helping his country earn a silver medal at the Rio Olympics last summer.
“I’m going to take this break,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 whose standout play made it possible to trade bruiser Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers for Mason Plumlee in February. “It’s going to be nice for me.”
Danilo Gallinari certainly likes the direction the team is headed, especially given the emergence of Jokic, sharp-shooting rookie Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
“One of the positive things, for example, is the talent and the number of young guys that we have,” Gallinari said. “They are very good players and it’s something the franchise can build on.”
Whether Gallinari sticks around in Denver for next season is a different story. He could opt out of his deal and explore free agency.
“It’s not time right now to make the decision,” said Gallinari, who was acquired in the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in 2011. “Right now, it’s time to digest the fact we were not able to accomplish the goal (of the playoffs) that I had, that we had, at the beginning of the season.
“After that, it’s time to go on vacation for a little bit, rest the body.”
Here are some takeaways from Denver’s season:
DESERVING HONOR: Murray believes he belongs on the all-rookie team after being one of Denver’s top outside threats. “I feel like I’m one of the better rookies in the class,” said Murray, the seventh overall pick out of Kentucky. “Got a chance to prove it.”
MILE HIGH LOVE: While the lure of testing free agency is attractive to Gallinari, so is returning to a city he loves. “I have a house here. After my career, Denver is going to be my city. It’s very tough for me to leave. We’ll see,” Gallinari said.
LEARNING LESSON: After missing time with lower back pain, point guard Emmanuel Mudiay found it difficult to get minutes. The seventh overall pick in 2015 turned in several strong games down the stretch after being demoted. “I became a better player,” Mudiay said. “Not saying I want to miss games, but when I did miss games, sit back and watch and look … see what you can do better.”
UP AND DOWN: Harris developed into a pivotal player after being bothered by a strained groin early, and then a foot injury. He averaged 14.9 points. “Gary’s ascension has kind of been understated,” Connelly said. “He really turned into a special player at the two-guard.”
ABILITY TO CHANGE: The Nuggets were all about going with a big lineup at the start of the season. After the emergence of Jokic, they switched gears and ran things through him. “He’s got a lot of unique tools,” Connelly said. “Offensively, he almost plays a near-perfect brand of basketball.”
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