Nikola Jokic’s historic 27-rebound triple-double highlights Nuggets’ deeper issues


As Nikola Jokic etched his name alongside Wilt Chamberlain, no one with the Nuggets seemed to have any idea what type of rare air he was occupying.

“I didn’t even realize he had twenty rebounds at the half,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “That was shocking.”

Then again, since arriving in Denver this summer via trade, Caldwell-Pope said Jokic has surprised him on a nightly basis.

As he annihilated the Hornets for 40 points, a career-high 27 rebounds, 10 assists and two steals, Nuggets coach Michael Malone wasn’t aware, either. All he cared about was beating Charlotte, which the Nuggets did, barely, 119-115.

Amid Denver’s 18th win of the season, Jokic became the first player to record at least those numbers since Chamberlain in 1968.

Jokic only learned of his torrid pace when Jamal Murray told him at halftime.

“That was good,” he mused, wholly unimpressed and entirely indifferent to his astonishing line.

As dumbfounding as what he did to Charlotte was, it was indicative of a deeper story. Sunday’s win was both a testament to the improved defensive effort and another ugly indictment on Denver’s bench.

Malone didn’t seem to care that his team yielded 35 points in the fourth quarter and needed to sink eight free throws just to hang on. They’d held the Hornets to 42% shooting, including 31% from 3-point range. Over the last five games, Denver’s opponents had made nearly 39% of their 3-pointers. On the season, they have the seventh-worst percentage in opponent 3-point shooting in the entire NBA. The message, to run shooters off the 3-point line, had finally stuck.

And instead of getting bludgeoned on second-chance opportunities, like what had happened against the Lakers in Friday’s debacle, Jokic mopped up all the misses. He had 27 boards, as the rest of his teammates secured 28.

“Rebound is a fact of playing defense,” he said.

Not only does his rebounding seal defensive possessions, his willingness to kick ahead often creates transition chances. On Sunday, Denver logged 20 fastbreak points, including a handful of highlight-reel jams. Those, according to Malone, are the “carrots” of playing quality defense.

The other, less savory aspect of Jokic’s night is that it was a product of another unsettling showing from Denver’s second unit. Three Hornets bench players notched double-figures, outscoring Denver’s bench 46-18. It’s a problem, Malone acknowledged, that he needs to solve as the head coach, and it’s in those instances where Jokic becomes a luxury.

After Jokic went to the bench near the end of the first quarter, Charlotte reeled off a 13-0 run that mandated an early second-quarter substitution for the MVP. Malone lowered his voice and whispered to the discomfort of the end of the first quarter.

“What’s gonna happen?” he said about such instances.

As Jokic sat with his warmup suit on and his sore knee wrapped in ice, the Hornets opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run to trim a 14-point lead to single digits. Eventually, Jokic checked back into a game where he’d already been historically great.


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