Four months later, and Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone is still blown away by Nikola Jokic’s playoff performance.
“What Nikola did in the postseason was remarkable,” Malone said on Sept. 30 as the team reconvened amid heightened expectations in an elevated Western Conference.
In 14 playoff games, the Nuggets’ 24-year-old All-Star center averaged 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists, putting him in some pretty elite company.
The only other players to post averages of at least 20 points, 10 boards and eight assists while playing at least 10 games in the postseason are Oscar Robertson in 1963, Wilt Chamberlin in 1967 and LeBron James in 2015.
“Going into the year I don’t know how you can even have an MVP discussion without mentioning his name because of what he did last year, for a guy that is supposedly un-athletic and out of shape,” Malone said. “I think he proved a lot of people wrong.”
“We became so reliant upon Nikola in the postseason,” Malone said. “I go back to Game 7, when we lost to Portland and he came to my office, he’s crying and apologizing for missing a big free throw. He missed the free throw because he was dead tired. The guy was playing 40 minutes a night.
“Hopefully this year in the playoffs — if we get back to the playoffs — we don’t have to be so reliant on him,” Malone said. “I’m looking for an improvement in all of our other players this postseason. Our bench unit was so impactful in the regular season and this coming year they’ll be much more impactful in the playoffs.
“If that’s the case I don’t have to play Nikola so much.”
Where he does want Jokic to improve is by keeping his emotions in check.
“For Nikola to have a great year for us, it’s going to be: Does he embrace being a leader of this team and can he handle his emotions?” Malone said. “Nikola Jokic, as we all know, is emotional. And I love it. I don’t want him to change who he is, I want the best version of Nikola Jokic. We can’t afford to have him thrown out of games arguing with the referees. Leave that to me.
“If he does those things, be a better leader and handle adversity, that’s going to allow him to have an even better season.”
And the Nuggets, too.
After ending a six-year playoff drought and winning a series for the first time since 2009, the Nuggets need to guard against letting up.
“How do you keep these guys motivated and not relax? That’s going to be our greatest challenge,” Malone said. “It’s not the Lakers, the Clippers, the Warriors, the Jazz or Rockets. It’s us.”
The Nuggets didn’t land the big free agents like their Western Conference rivals, but they like the additions they did make.
Denver bolstered its front court by acquiring 25-year-old power forward Jerami Grant from the Thunder for a 2020 first-round pick. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Grant is coming off a breakout season that saw him set career highs in points (13.6) and rebounds (5.2). He shot 49.7% from the field and 39.2% from 3-point range. On the defensive end, he displayed his versatility by blocking 100 shots and recording 61 steals.
Grant was thrilled to land in Denver.
“It’s good to get off a sinking ship,” said Grant, the son of longtime NBA player Harvey Grant.
The Nuggets tip off the regular season at Portland on Oct. 23. The team is coming off a 54-28 season that earned it the No. 2 seed in the West. They didn’t make any splashy moves in the offseason although they did bring back forward Paul Millsap, picking up his $30 million option and agreed on a $170 million extension for point guard Jamal Murray.
“It’s their team,” Malone said of Jokic and Murray. “Step up and embrace being a leader. We need that desperately. I know Isaiah Thomas only played nine games last year but he was so impactful for our group. That voice and that presence is gone. Who’s going to fill that void? I really hope it’s going to be Nikola and Jamal who take that leadership mantle because it’s going to be a big part of our locker room and our team this year.”
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