By Pat Graham, Associated Press
Nikola Jokic wouldn’t mind a few more days of rest after his return from the All-Star festivities.
Sorry, big fella. It’s go time.
With 26 games remaining, the Denver Nuggets have a tenuous hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Their biggest challenger may end up being New Orleans after the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento.
The Nuggets have this in their favor: A roster returning to health and a rising standout in Jokic, who’s showing he can carry a team.
“We (are in) a good spot,” said Jokic, whose team plays at Sacramento on Thursday, with the Kings trailing Denver by 1½ games for the last spot. “Do whatever we can do to win more games.”
That doesn’t mean pulling off a deal just for the sake of pulling off a deal at the trade deadline Thursday, even if quite a few Nuggets names are surfacing in trade rumors. At 25-31, the Nuggets are ahead of where most thought they would be at this point, and the young nucleus keeps gaining confidence.
“I love the team we have. We’re very competitive,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team is trying to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. “We’re not going to mortgage our future just to be an eight seed. Doesn’t make sense. We’re thinking long-term, big picture.
“We’re not satisfied with making the playoffs. … We want to be a team that gets deep into the playoffs and ultimately wins a championship.”
Lately, the Nuggets have been dealing with their share of injuries. Danilo Gallinari (groin), Kenneth Faried (ankle) and Emmanuel Mudiay (back) could all soon return to the lineup. Given all those ailments — along with Darrell Arthur (knee) — Malone has utilized a shorter rotation. It has possibly taken a toll on players such as Jokic, who’s averaging 16.3 points, nine rebounds and 4.3 assists in a breakout season.
“I’m really tired. My body is tired,” the 22-year-old Jokic said. “But I’m going to go out there and play.”
The benefits of youth.
This helps the confidence as well: Jokic and rookie sharpshooter Jamal Murray turned in electric performances at the Rising Star Challenge during All-Star weekend in New Orleans. Jokic had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Team World only to be upstaged by Murray, who scored 36 on his way to earning MVP honors.
“It’s a lot of fun to be out there with all those guys,” Murray said.
And now comes basketball filled with playoff-type pressure. Malone wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
“You can’t put a dollar sign on the experience for Jamal Murray playing meaningful minutes and meaningful games,” Malone said. “You can’t replicate that. I can tell him about it, but until he’s out there playing these next 26 games, that experience is going to help his development ten-fold. It’s going to increase the speed of his development.”
The trade the Pelicans pulled off could alter things in the West, especially if Anthony Davis and Cousins develop an instant chemistry. Denver plays New Orleans three more times and has a 2½-game lead.
“They’ve gotten better on paper,” Malone said. “The challenge is how quickly they can get adjusted.”
The same can be said of the Nuggets, who recently added Mason Plumlee in a deal that sent Jusuf Nurkic to Portland.
“We’re on the right track,” Murray said. “Go out there and take it one game at a time and not panic. Just try to stay consistent.”
Above all else, play consistent defense. The Nuggets average 110.6 points a game, while surrendering 111.8.
“For us to be a playoff team, we have to defend a lot better and more consistently,” said Malone, who went skiing and snowmobiling with his family in Breckenridge, Colorado, over the All-Star break. “If we do that and the offense stays where it’s at, we’re a pretty good basketball team.”