“All eyes are on him”: Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic scores season-high 40 in MVP-caliber performance

Nuggets franchise superstar Nikola Jokic was as blunt as he’s been all season following Saturday’s dispiriting loss to the Suns. He was critical of the team’s effort and irritated that they had played like they could waltz over last-place Phoenix.

And then on Sunday, prior to the Nuggets’ matchup against the Blazers, he sensed something similar happening again.

“To be honest, I thought in the warm-ups we were kind of loose,” Jokic said. “We were not focused.”

That attitude preempted his forthcoming assault on the Blazers, a potpourri of post moves, 3-pointers and assists that buried Portland and left former teammate Jusuf Nurkic in his wake.

Jokic scored 23 of his season-high 40 points in the second half, rising to the occasion as Blazers franchise star Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum pecked away at the Nuggets’ lead. Jokic finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Nuggets’ riveting 116-113 win to improve to an NBA-best 18-3 at home. He’s just the fifth center since 1985 to post at least those numbers, joining David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and DeMarcus Cousins.

Jokic’s on-court ascendance has vaulted him into the MVP conversation, but his biggest development has come in trusting his voice and shaping the locker room culture. After the game he claimed he’s not one to challenge his teammates.

“If they don’t want to get better or whatever, how am I going to help them?” Jokic mused. “Just yell at them? In Serbia, challenging is yelling at you.”

But rather than lay into his teammates after turning the ball over in Phoenix or belabor poor effort in transition defense, Jokic simply set the tone Sunday. He took the first six shots against the Blazers and showed a relentless, bullheaded mindset while pounding the ball in the paint. After the first quarter he’d taken 10 shots; no one else on the Nuggets had more than three. In the decisive third quarter, when the Nuggets outscored the Blazers 35-28, Jokic had 15 points on 6 for 6 shooting and five assists. In the fourth, he and rising star Jamal Murray shared the responsibility, the two combining for 17 of the team’s 23 points.

Jokic’s trust in Murray is evident, their on-court chemistry budding like a weed. It was Murray, freed by a Jokic screen, who dropped in a soft floater with the Nuggets up 112-110 with 34 seconds remaining. Jokic immediately squeezed him with a bear hug. It was also Murray who missed another floater moments later only to secure the offensive rebound and sink two clutch free throws to maintain the 116-113 cushion.

Part of his development is knowing when to defer, an acknowledgement that Murray is entirely capable of hunting his shots in the clutch. But it’s also knowing when it’s time to impose his seven-foot imprint should the game call for it.

“He’s definitely accepted it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of the responsibilities of a team’s best player. “I think this summer when he signed that contract he understood heavy is the head that wears the crown. There’s going to be much asked of him now that he’s our franchise player. He hasn’t shied away from that. … All eyes are on him at all times, and he’s embraced that, and I think he’s doing a hell of a job with it.”

From Malone’s mouth to Jokic’s ears, neither leader was going to allow for a letdown despite the fact that the Nuggets were playing in their fifth game in seven nights. Avoiding excuses is one of Malone’s mantras, though getting that to actually manifest on the court is half the battle. Fortunately, Malone has a loyal foot soldier in Jokic.

“For me, to be honest, there can’t be fatigue,” Jokic said. “It’s just half of the season. I think I did a really good job (preparing) this summer, and a lot of guys did a good job this summer, so I think we can’t even mention fatigue.”

On a night that saw him flourish under another chorus of MVP chants, Jokic got one step closer to actually realizing that lofty goal.

“I think it’s a no-brainer that he should be in that (MVP) conversation,” said Will Barton. “A team that wasn’t in the playoffs last year, to have the best record in the West, our original starting five has barely seen the floor together, guys been in and out of the lineup, key players. What he’s doing, how can you not say he’s an MVP candidate?”

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