Grading the Week: Nikola Jokic’s enormous basketball brain should never be taken for granted

The all-time greats don’t just play one game when they step onto the basketball court.

They find games within the game — little wrinkles and subtle advantages that they can exploit to service the goal of winning.

Nikola Jokic + Michael Malone — A+

One such instance occurred near the end of the Nuggets’ miraculous comeback victory over the Golden State Warriors late Wednesday night in the Bay Area. And without it, Monte Morris’ game-winning 3-pointer doesn’t happen.

It came with a little under two minutes to play, when NBA rules dictate that any off-ball defensive foul outside the flow of play results in the offensive team getting one free throw and possession of the ball.

The Nuggets could no longer use the Hack-a-Shaq strategy Malone deftly deployed against Warriors center Kevon Looney on two possessions prior to the two-minute mark (Looney hit 2 of 4). Knowing this, and being aware of time (1:18 left) and score (113-108, Warriors), Nikola Jokic waited until the very instant he could intentionally foul Looney within the flow of play (Looney setting a pick for Steph Curry) to put him back on the line.

Looney promptly missed both free throws, then Jokic assisted or scored on three of his team’s next four baskets — the last a no-look dime to Morris on the wing for the game-winning dagger.

There are so many reasons the Grading the Week staff loves Jokic. His enormous basketball brain is near the top of the list.

MLB + MLBPA — F

The month of March is a little over a week away, and practice fields sit empty in Arizona and Florida.

Major League Baseball, in all its wisdom, opted to name Dick Monfort chairman of MLB’s labor policy committee prior to the current lockout, meaning the Rockies owner has a big hand in the league’s negotiations with the players’ association.

And, somehow, the man who helped swing the Nolan Arenado trade has been unable to avoid a delayed start to spring training.

Could it be an owner some claim cares more about profits than delivering a winning team is a tougher negotiator when his bottom line is at stake? The Grading the Week staff can only speculate, although it should be noted Monfort will soon be losing money n if regular-season games are missed and nobody is hanging around McGregor Square.

Of course, it would be unfair to lay all the blame at Monfort’s feet.

The Rockies have long been at a disadvantage under the previous labor agreements that governed MLB. Something resembling a salary cap would go a long way toward leveling the playing field against the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees, but the players want none of it.

Meanwhile, management has been downright dastardly with the way they have manipulated players’ service time, then later turned frugal when those same players became veteran free agents.

Unfortunately, the Grading the Week staff only has so much sympathy for two parties struggling to figure out a way to divvy up annual revenues that exceed $10 billion. Actually, we have none.

Darcy Kuemper — A

It’s time to put the annual angst that hovers around the Avalanche’s situation in goal to rest.

After posting consecutive shutouts in his past two starts, including a command 29-save performance in the Avs’ 2-0 win at the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday, Kuemper is 15-0-2 since Dec. 8. During that time, Colorado’s 6-foot-5 netminder has a .934 save percentage with just 36 goals allowed in 1,073 minutes on the ice.

While some of that success can be attributed to the Avalanche’s ability to control the puck for long stretches, there’s little doubt the Kuemper who’s been between the pipes since November is more than capable of authoring a Stanley Cup run.

A quiet NHL trade deadline would be just fine for Colorado.

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