If Nikola Jokic’s hands were actually undersized vacuum cleaners, no one with the Nuggets organization would think twice.
The two-time reigning MVP inhaled and consumed everything that caromed in his radius Sunday evening at Ball Arena. His preposterous night – 40 points, 27 rebounds, and 10 assists – gave Denver a much-needed 119-115 win over Charlotte. Jokic’s fifth triple-double of the season also yielded his career-high in boards.
“Nikola is a generational talent,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who said he had no idea Jokic’s rebounding numbers were as high as they were. “… What he does is just amazing every night.”
Jokic’s outlandish and oversized effort improved Denver’s record to 18-11 overall, 9-3 at home.
The scary part for the Nuggets, who’ve desperately searched for a defensive identity for weeks, was Denver badly needed everything Jokic had to give them against a mediocre team. The Hornets reeled off a 35-point fourth quarter that nearly thwarted Jokic’s monster performance.
Undeterred by Sunday’s tight finish, Malone was pleased with the overall defense.
“This is our best defensive game in a long time, so I’m gonna put that in a pipe and smoke it,” Malone said.
LaMelo Ball spearheaded the Hornets’ comeback attempt with 31 points, but the Nuggets got huge contributions from Bruce Brown (16 points), Aaron Gordon (19) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (20) to aid Jokic’s heroics.
Michael Porter Jr. sat for the 12th consecutive game, but Malone suggested optimism he could return within the next 7-to-10 days.
“We miss Michael Porter,” Malone said prior to the game.
The Nuggets carried the same effort they used to close the first half into the third quarter. As a result, they busted open a 16-point lead on the strength of their defensive engagement. There were steals, deflections and a semblance of connectivity that hadn’t been there in recent games. It laid the foundation for the excitement.
When Jokic snatched a pass a few minutes into the third quarter, it quickly found Caldwell-Pope who lofted a perfect lob to Brown. The one-handed alley-oop encapsulated the easy baskets that are sitting there when the Nuggets defend. Aaron Gordon got his big mitts in the passing lanes, too, and Denver ripped off a 39-point quarter. They carried a comfortable 94-80 lead into the fourth.
Malone had no interest in dissecting the defensive debacle in Los Angeles on Friday night. Those mistakes, he said, could be reviewed another day.
“All I care about right now is beating Charlotte, somehow, someway,” he said in the pregame. “Obviously, you hope your defense is better. You hope that we’re able to get back in transition. You hope that we’re able to take care of the basketball, defend the paint, rebound.”
Aside from the turnovers which have plagued the Nuggets recently, he was most concerned with defending the 3-point line and approaching the perimeter with the proper discipline.
“It seems like if you don’t deem a player a run-off, guys just completely disrespect him,” Malone added of their defensive malaise. He joked about implementing “Jedi mind tricks” to help convince his team of the requisite effort to defend the perimeter.
To their credit, the urgency improved as the first half went on Sunday evening. Charlotte managed just 7-of-21 from outside over the first two quarters as the Nuggets, finally, buckled down on defense. It earned them a 55-52 halftime lead that could’ve been in favor of the Hornets had Jokic not authored a historic half.
After 20 dominant minutes, Jokic trotted to halftime with 16 points and 20 rebounds to his name. It broke Denver’s franchise record for rebounds in a half (Spencer Haywood once had 19) and flirted with the NBA record for boards in a half (22). Jokic appeared energized after both he and Malone picked up technical fouls for arguing with officials.
While Jokic inhaled everything that came off the rim, both Brown and Caldwell-Pope injected their physical brand of defense into the game. Brown played like he’d chugged a Red Bull and flew around on both sides of the ball. His second-quarter block led to a transition break, which he finished, emphatically, with a dunk.
Caldwell-Pope returned soon after appearing to injure his left leg. He poured in 12 first-half points, showing no ill effects of a hard screen that had sent him to the locker room.