TORONTO — After the Denver Nuggets pulled off yet another impressive win on Monday, beating the Toronto Raptors 106-103 to stretch their win streak to six games, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was asked about the latest sensational performance from Denver’s star center, Nikola Jokic.
Before Murray could answer the question, music made its way toward the pack of reporters around him from a nearby corner of the locker room. Murray smiled and nodded in its direction.
There was Jokic, fresh off a 23-point, 11-rebound, 15-assist triple-double, rocking out to music on his cell phone by himself while icing down in the corner.
Murray could only laugh.
“Look at that,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s what I deal with every day.”
Jokic — both on and off the court — is full of surprises. It’s that spontaneity that has helped spark the Nuggets to a 16-7 record after Monday’s thrilling win. That record has them tied with the LA Clippers for the top spot in the thoroughly unpredictable Western Conference.
To watch Jokic is to see someone truly unique on a basketball court. That word is thrown around far too often, but in this case it fits: a 6-foot-10 center who passes with the ease of a 6-foot point guard and with a flair that would fit into any city game in America but was cultivated several thousand miles away in Serbia.
Jokic put all those tricks on display Monday. He grabbed four of Denver’s 15 offensive rebounds, helping the Nuggets create their decisive 23-2 edge in second-chance points. He had 15 of Denver’s 40 assists, throwing an assortment of ridiculous passes to give his teammates wide-open looks throughout the game. Jokic, who can credibly claim to be one of the greatest passing big men of all time, is the only center in the past 30 years to have 15 assists in a single game.
He has now done that three times.
While Jokic can sometimes be reluctant to shoot, he led Denver with 23 points, including three free throws in a row in the final seven seconds of the game after getting Serge Ibaka to grab him before the ball had been inbounded. That resulted in a dead-ball foul and one free throw, and Jokic sank both intentional free throws after catching the ensuing inbounds pass.
The result was Denver coming away with its latest impressive victory and continuing to show the league why the Nuggets — after barely missing the playoffs the past two season — might be a team to be reckoned with in the West.
“I don’t know,” Jokic said when asked why things went so well for him against Toronto. “The guys were making shots, I was passing the ball, we were playing good. We had really good energy on the bench … everyone who played did something good in the game. It’s a little bit of everything.”
It would’ve been easy for Jokic to take the lion’s share of the credit after his performance. But that isn’t how the 23-year-old is wired, which feeds into the mindset of his teammates.
Despite being one of the NBA’s leading offenses (Denver is ninth in offensive efficiency following Monday’s action), the Nuggets don’t run a lot of elaborate sets. Instead, they leverage Jokic’s ingenuity and creativity and utilize a team of smart, heady players around him to maximize those gifts.
Nikola Jokic throws a cross-court, no-look pass to Jamal Murray, who drains a 3.
“He does everything,” said Murray, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in 41 minutes. “He passes, rebounds, handles the ball. There’s nothing that he can’t do, except jump.”
The result is a wildly entertaining team that looks to be on a mission to erase any doubts about its chances of making the postseason this time around. Now armed with that six-game win streak, which comes on the heels of wins in nine of the first 10 games, Denver sports victories over a who’s who of opponents in the early going.
That includes the Raptors, the team with the NBA’s best record, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers.
That Denver has done this almost entirely without Will Barton — the team’s starting small forward who has missed all but the first two games of the season with a groin injury — is a testament to the depth that was built up by the front office, led by President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly. Juan Hernangomez has more than capably filled in for Barton as the starting small forward, playing well enough that Nuggets coach Michael Malone will have to find time for him when Barton returns. Monte Morris, a second-round pick a year ago, has been a revelation as the team’s backup point guard this season.
While the Nuggets will hope for good news on the injury front for guard Gary Harris, who is getting an MRI on Tuesday in Orlando after leaving Monday’s game in the first quarter with a groin injury of his own, Malik Beasley scored 15 points in 26 minutes off the bench, including a huge 3-pointer to help put Denver ahead in the closing minutes.
It’s a mix that has the Nuggets flying high — and hoping that, with a core group of players in Harris (24 years old), Jokic (23) and Murray (21) that should be good for years to come, this is just the beginning of a long run of success in the Mile High City.
“To gut this win out tonight, undermanned … to have enough poise down the stretch speaks volumes to a young team that is growing up and really maturing in big moments, and it’s great to see,” Malone said. “I am so proud of our guys for that.
“That’s a helluva win for us. That’s a great team over there. But we are not satisfied. We have three more games on this trip. It’s a business trip, and we’ll continue to try to get more wins and see what we can do moving forward.”
Just don’t expect Jokic to treat it like anything other than what it is: a chance for him to have fun and play his own way, both on and off the court.
That has served the Nuggets well so far. Don’t count on them — or Jokic — changing course anytime soon.