DENVER — Already a triple-double threat on the floor, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic is prepared to raise his game in yet another category — leadership.
Anything to help out after losing point guard and vocal leader Jamal Murray for the season due to a torn ACL in his left knee.
Jokic’s first decree to his teammates: Concentrate on the task at hand. Because nothing changes, even if the odds may say so.
The Nuggets’ stock as a contender in the Western Conference took a hit in the wake of Murray’s knee injury. Once +1400 favorites to win the West, the Nuggets are now +1600, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. They were a +1400 bet to capture their first NBA title, too, only to slip to +3000.
Go ahead and count them out, Jokic said. They relish this sort of role.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” Jokic said after a 123-106 win over the Miami Heat on Wednesday in their first game after Murray tore his ACL. “I’m kind of used to it. It’s a normal position for me.
“We’re going to miss (Murray) as a team. He’s a big part of our team. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to quit.”
This was a Nuggets squad riding high after trading for athletic forward Aaron Gordon in late March. They were clicking on all cylinders, too, rattling off eight straight wins and looking every bit like a force in the West.
Then, a home loss to Boston in which they were outscored 31-8 in the fourth quarter. No big deal, the Nuggets had Murray about to return at Golden State on Monday after missing four games with a sore right knee.
Late in the loss to the Warriors, Murray tried to elevate off his left leg as he drove to the basket, crumpled to the floor in pain and grabbed his knee.
There went any chance of a deep playoff run, right?
“Whoever says that, that’s them,” said Nuggets forward and 3-point threat Michael Porter Jr., whose team plays in Houston on Friday night. “We never pay attention to them in the first place. We pay attention to what we believe. That’s it. … The goal is the same. I think we still have the talent to do it.”
It all centers around Jokic, the do-everything 7-footer who’s inserted himself in the MVP conversation by averaging 26 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists.
“He’s got to be the guy that rights the ship and puts the team on his back, because that’s what MVPs do,” coach Michael Malone said. “Nikola, because he’s that great of a player and has that leadership quality within him, I expect him to understand that and start handling these situations in a manner he’s shown many times before.
“It’s going to be a terrific opportunity to handle a really difficult situation — for Nikola and all of his teammates. It’s not just on him.”
Malone reiterated the point over and over: point guard Monte Morris doesn’t need to turn into Murray, who averaged 21.2 points and 4.8 assists. Morris only needs to be himself.
Same goes for backups Facundo Campazzo and PJ Dozier. Simply be themselves.
“Don’t go out there and try to be something you’re not. Be true to yourself and just bring it every single night,” Malone said. “Play hard, compete, play with discipline, play with effort and play on both ends of the floor. If they do that, we’ll have a chance to weather the storm without Jamal.”
Jokic was impressed with the way the Nuggets played in a bounce-back win over the Heat. They outrebounded the Heat by a 43-30 margin, dished out 32 assists and had six different players score 10 or more points.
That’s the sort of effort that may garner national attention again.
Or maybe not.
“No one ever gives us a chance and we’re fine with that. I think we kind of thrive in that element,” Malone said. “We’re underdogs. If they want to talk about all of the other teams, let them talk about them.”
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