Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic’s value to the Denver Nuggets was on display Wednesday night.
Against a tired team playing on consecutive nights — at altitude — and 1,800 miles from home, the Denver Nuggets faltered in the fourth quarter without Jokic. The New York Knicks dominated down the stretch while Denver struggled to find offense.
If Jokic was playing instead of being in health and safety protocols, chances of the Nuggets holding on against New York would have been much better.
Denver likely will be without Jokic again when it travels to Dallas to face the Mavericks on Friday night. Aaron Gordon, who missed the loss to the Knicks with a non-COVID illness, is also questionable. Coach Michael Malone said Wednesday night he expects both players to be out.
The Mavericks are also coming off a disappointing home loss to Houston on Wednesday night in a game Luka Doncic sat out for rest. He is available for the game against the Nuggets.
Friday’s game is the first of two the teams will play in Dallas; they play again Sunday night.
Doncic, like Jokic with Denver, is the catalyst for the Mavericks’ offense. He leads the team in scoring (34.4 points a game), rebounding (8.8), assists (7.8) and steals (2.1), so having him out of the lineup against the Rockets was impactful.
Still, his teammates don’t want to blame his absence for the loss.
“I don’t think there’s (an) excuse. We just got to be better, man,” Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “From start to finish, everyone. It’s not an excuse. We have a couple of guys banged up, bruised up. It’s always next man up. I think we’ll learn from this and keep moving forward.”
The Nuggets feel the same way, and one player, Zeke Nnaji, sees an opportunity to prove himself with Jokic out. Nnaji scored 13 points in 26 minutes in the loss to New York after averaging just 3.9 minutes in the eight games he had played this season.
Nnaji had never played more than nine minutes in a game this season or scored more than four points.
Nnaji, just 21 and in his third year out of Arizona, can show his value on the defensive end where he can switch and be effective.
“I think one of the big positives that Zeke Nnaji brings is his ability to guard multiple positions,” Malone said. “He’s a versatile defender in today’s NBA, guarding (centers) and (power forwards) and being able to switch off to the small (forwards) and contain those smalls.”
Denver will also need more out of Michael Porter Jr., who followed up a 31-point performance at Chicago on Sunday night with just five points on 1-for-8 shooting in 28 minutes.
The bright spot coming out of Wednesday’s loss is Jamal Murray’s comfort level after missing all of last season. Murray scored 21 points and is averaging 18.9 points a game in November, and 16.5 in 13 total games.
The Nuggets’ Bones Hyland returned from missing three games while in health and safety protocols to score 21 points.
–Field Level Media