The Nuggets without Nikola Jokic are like The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. I know it’s only rock and roll, but do we like it?
“Nothing was going our way,” acting head coach David Adelman said after Oklahoma City on Sunday snapped Denver’s streaks of nine straight wins overall and 16 straight victories at Ball Arena, thanks to a 101-99 escape. “And to be down five at the half, and to have a chance to win the game … I’m proud of them.
“Losing always (stinks), but at least (Sunday was about) watching your team fight through something and give themselves a chance, which has been us all year.”
Even without the services of Jokic (hamstring) and Michael Porter Jr. (personal reasons that became sadly clearer just before tip-off), the Nuggets on Sunday probably would’ve beaten OKC nine times out of 10.
Jamal Murray (26 points, nine assists) pulled strings like 2019 never left, and Zeke Nnaji (12 points, 10 boards) looked calm and assured when pressed into 28 minutes of duty.
But then there was forward Aaron Gordon, who seemed to be — well, pressing, period.
The skywalker managed only four makes on 15 field-goal attempts, six makes on 13 free-throw tries, then capped the night off by losing Thunder scoring machine Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a game-winning inbounds play.
“When a game like this happens and (Jokic) sits out, you miss Nikola, everything he brings to the table, the attention he gets,” veteran forward Jeff Green, who chipped in 12 points off the bench, told me after the tilt.
“But at the same time, it helps us realize who we are and what we’re capable of. And we have a (expletive) talented group, throughout the line.”
The Nuggets — who open a three-game road swing Tuesday at New Orleans — are so good (33-14), so deep, so committed to each other and to the cause that blemishes are a rare beast. Alas, on Sunday, that beast was taking giant bites out of Gordon’s backside.
Despite a 28-point effort against Indiana this past Friday, big No. 50 appeared comparatively flummoxed two days later, the NBA equivalent of that meme in which a fiery dumpster floats slowly down a flooded street.
“Sometimes, I think it provides more pressure on guys when they see their teammates miss,” Adelman reasoned. “And now you feel like, ‘I have to make these two free throws.’ Then you start to feel the tightness of it. Unfortunately, that’s what happened (Sunday), and we just didn’t make enough shots.”
AG can beat you from anywhere on the floor right now, except at the charity stripe. Which is where you fear opposing coaches will send him, time and again, in the playoffs — where survival by any means necessary is the only end game that matters — until he makes them atone for their sins.
During a five-game homestand last week, Gordon averaged 18.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He was a poet in the paint and a butcher at the stripe, posting a 55% clip from the free-throw line (22-40), the kind of number that tends to show up in ALL CAPS on the other guy’s scouting report when a team has so few weaknesses to exploit otherwise.
“I think we learned (more) from this loss than others this season,” Murray said. “We stayed together, we had great dialogue in the locker room (afterward) about what went on in the game and where we could be better, and how we felt where the game slipped for us.
“I just feel like we communicated a lot more than we (usually) do after (Sunday’s) loss. It was all constructive, all positive, and we held each other accountable. It was great to see. Not many teams can do that. I think we all owned it and we’ll be better.”
If they aren’t, it could put coach Michael Malone, who’s expected to return to the bench any day now, in something of a pickle. AG is one of the best defenders on the roster, quick enough to hang with cutters on the wing and strong enough to body up most big men down low. A must-play in late game situations, right? Yeah, but …
He’s also connecting on just 58% of his free throws during the second half of games this season, after sporting a healthier 78% mark in those same situations a year ago. Gordon’s second-half free-throw percentage during the ’22 playoffs: 83.3%. In ’21, it was 54.5%.
In other words, you never quite know what you’re going to get, except a migraine. All-Stars don’t head to the stripe nine times in the second half and whiff on six of them.