Maybe opponents are tiring of the Nikola Jokic show, but the Denver Nuggets could use some more from their star player.
Jokic and the Nuggets are aiming for a steady finishing stretch to the season, and a good opportunity awaits when they play the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night in Charlotte, N.C.
“It’s really hard to knock Nikola off his game,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.
The Nuggets (44-31) have seemed slightly rattled at times recently, losing three of their past five games. The setbacks came to Cleveland, Boston and Phoenix, with the victories against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even though Jokic’s 35 points and 12 rebounds against Oklahoma City on Saturday night seemed almost routine, those types of contributions also are critical for the team.
“You almost just assume the greatness is there every night,” Malone said. “His consistency should never be taken for granted. It should be marveled at every single night.
“There are other really talented players in this league, but to do it every night like he has done is something that you rarely see.”
The Hornets (39-36) have cranked out key results the past couple of weeks, winning seven of their last eight games. That includes Sunday night’s 119-110 victory at Brooklyn, where considerable attention was on the Nets having Kyrie Irving available for a home game for the first time this season.
Charlotte guard LaMelo Ball racked up 33 points Sunday, perhaps stealing some of the spotlight in a game that could go a long way in determining the Eastern Conference’s pecking order.
Even with the Hornets slated to play Monday night following late-night travel back from New York, they could overcome their fatigue due to the urgency of the playoff chase deep into March.
“There’s excited energy that gets you through,” Hornets coach James Borrego said.
Charlotte might be willing to try different defensive strategies given that when the Hornets have had defensive lulls they’ve been the most vulnerable. But makeshift defensive alignments are something the Nuggets have encountered frequently with a focus on Jokic, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.
“Teams are basically saying somebody else has to beat us,” Malone said.
Charlotte tends to receive its offensive boosts from a variety of sources, though Ball and Miles Bridges have shouldered the load over the past two weeks. Ball repeated his scoring success from two games earlier, and he has eclipsed the 30-point mark twice in less than a week.
Borrego said spacing on offense has helped the Hornets become more efficient on offense. Much of that can be associated to the backcourt duo of Ball and Terry Rozier.
“Our decision-makers are seeing a cleaner floor right now,” Borrego said.
Malone said the Nuggets need to build momentum. At this point in the season, the value of improving playoff position is critical regardless of how winning games is achieved.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I don’t care about that,” Malone said. “Charlotte is playing at a high level … Every game, every quarter, every possession matters.”
The Hornets won 115-107 on Dec. 23 at Denver.