Monday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers was a difficult one for the Denver Nuggets to stomach. Even with LeBron James and Dennis Schroder out of the lineup, Denver still couldn’t figure out the team that knocked them out of the 2020 playoffs. But fortunately, the Nuggets had a shot at redemption against another big-market contender on Wednesday, and they made the most of it.
The New York Knicks came to Denver at the start of a difficult four-game road trip and got decimated by the Nuggets, 113-97. The score was so lopsided to start that Nikola Jokic scored twice as many points (24) as the Knicks did as a team (12) in the entire first quarter. Now the Nuggets are back on track and the Knicks have to right the ship with some difficult games ahead. Here are the three most important takeaways from Denver’s victory.
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1. Is jumbo ball here to stay?
Prior to Wednesday, The Nuggets had never used the four-man combination of Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Paul Millsap, nor should they have been expected to. How often do teams ever play three power forwards and a center together? It was injuries that forced Denver’s hand. Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Monte Morris and PJ Dozier all missed this game due to injury, so without enough healthy guards to run a traditional starting lineup, the Nuggets improvised and landed on an interesting lineup construction.
Its effectiveness against the Knicks, in particular, isn’t all that surprising. New York takes the fourth-fewest 3-pointers in the NBA and relies on its drivers generating good looks at the basket. That’s harder against such a big lineup, yet all four of Denver’s bigs can shoot well enough to keep the offense afloat offensively.
In a perfect world, the Nuggets will have some of its guards back in time for the postseason and won’t be forced to use this lineup much. But it’s an interesting arrow to keep in the quiver against bigger teams. The Lakers stand out as a possible first-round matchup. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope beats them from behind the arc, then so be it, but all of this extra heft could be useful against such a big opponent.
2. Nikola Jokic really doesn’t care about MVP
“I never play basketball to win individual awards,” Jokic said over the weekend. “So MVP is just something that the people and media are trying to make a story out of it. So, if it happens, it happens. I don’t play for that. Like I said, as long as we’re winning I’m happy.” Players love to say these things but rarely actually mean them. Winning MVP is an enormous honor. There’s no shame in wanting to win it. Doing so usually requires several marquee performances against the best teams.
Jokic had a chance to do that on Wednesday. He scored 24 points in the first quarter alone. The Knicks are missing one of their centers, Mitchell Robinson, and their other one, Nerlens Noel, was dealing with an ankle injury. Had Jokic wanted to, he almost certainly could have scored 50 points. Maybe more. He averages almost eight points per quarter. Yet he scored only eight total in the last three on Wednesday. He’d had his fill.
This is a relatively common occurrence for Jokic, who tends to score in bunches rather than monopolize the offense for entire games. Doing so might boost an already ironclad MVP case, but it just isn’t who Jokic is as a player. Nothing about his game suggests that he’s actively pursuing the award or that he’d care about posting huge numbers against a top defense from a big market. He does exactly what is needed to win. No more, no less.
3. Trouble ahead for the Knicks?
The Knicks have been the NBA’s hottest team for the past month or so, but their stranglehold on the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference is officially in jeopardy. They have the NBA’s fourth-hardest remaining schedule, and the rest of this road trip is the meat of that. Their next three games are at Phoenix, at the Clippers and at the Lakers. Now, LeBron James and Dennis Schroder may miss that last game, but with a date with the Boston Celtics also on the slate, the Knicks could have several more potential losses on their ledger before the standings are set.
The Knicks lead No. 7-seeded Miami by only two games in the loss column, so as incredible as it seems based on their recent success, the Knicks haven’t quite assured themselves even a top-six seed yet much less No. 4. Boston will have a chance to pick up not only a game in the standings when the two meet but also the tiebreaker. The Heat already have the tiebreaker against the Knicks, so buckle up, New York, it could be a bumpy two weeks before the playoffs arrive.