Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic isn’t cracking despite undue burden: “It’s never one guy for me”

Someday, after some preposterous line of production, Nikola Jokic might crack.

The burden of three condensed seasons, piled on top of COVID stress, carrying a depleted team and navigating parenthood with a newborn daughter, might weigh him down.

It could’ve been Wednesday night, when the Nuggets were down numerous coaches, including Michael Malone, and lost another assistant coach only moments before the game because he didn’t feel well.

Jokic could’ve looked at the third-quarter lineup of Bones Hyland, Davon Reed, Rayjon Tucker and Monte Morris and thought challenging one of the most complete teams in the NBA, the Utah Jazz, was unreasonable.

Morris, playing his first game since Dec. 26 due to health and safety protocols, said he stayed sharp by shooting on his pop-a-shot at home. The rest of that brief lineup included a rookie (Hyland) one game removed from protocol himself and two guys on 10-day contracts.

But Jokic didn’t pin the 115-109 loss on anyone, and he didn’t bemoan Denver’s circumstances. There was nothing that suggested he felt sorry for himself or his team.

After hanging 26 points, 21 rebounds and 11 assists against the Jazz, he wouldn’t acknowledge that the situation was overwhelming.

“It’s never one guy for me,” said Jokic, praising his teammates’ effort.

While Malone missed his third consecutive game due to health and safety, Jokic adjusted to Popeye Jones’ schemes, all without raising an eyebrow.

Even though the team is more comfortable with Malone’s voice, there were no excuses. With so many regulars absent or hurt, Jokic said the details become even more magnified. He emphasized setting quality screens, spacing and running to spots in transition. There was never a hint that there wasn’t enough.

Morris sees the burden, though.

“He’s pulling his weight,” Morris said after scoring 20 points in his return. “We just gotta take onus on ourselves to just help him. Do more. Anything. Rebound more, help him out. Let him get a rest on defense.

“I know he gets tired,” Morris added. “He’s not like a monster out there where he don’t get tired.”

It only sometimes seems like it. Without Rudy Gobert healthy, the Jazz threw waves of smaller defenders at him in Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall and others. Most of the time the Jazz hounded him in tandem.

If the Nuggets are going to stay afloat, as Jamal Murray (ACL), Markus Howard (leg), Zeke Nnaji (health and safety) and Jeff Green (health and safety) work toward eventual returns, Denver will have to adjust to all the attention Jokic is bound to see.

“We’re gonna see this for the rest of the year,” Jones said. “When Joker gets the ball in the post, they’re going to send two guys, three guys at him. When he gets the ball on the nail, or the free throw line, they’re going to send two guys, three guys at him. We gotta make some shots to loosen the defense and to let him play one-on-one.”

On Wednesday, the Nuggets missed a ton of open 3-pointers, finishing the night just 11 for 36 from outside. It was no way to counter a Jazz outfit that hung 58 in the paint and dropped 14 3-pointers, even with Jokic as special as he was.

There’s an orbit, Morris said, that Denver’s available guys will have to learn around Jokic.

“We just gotta be more in tune to how they’re playing him,” Morris said. “They were coming right off the catch tonight, whoever was entering the ball. … He was telling us in the huddle, if you enter the ball to him, your man come traps, you cut. … whoever’s the middle guy (is) gotta take you, so whoever’s at the top, just pull, and it’s like a string. … “

Jokic wouldn’t cop to being more vocal without so many regular voices on the sidelines, but it was apparent he tried to fill in the gaps. And once the game was over, he wouldn’t concede an inch over how his teammates played off him.

“I think they’re doing a great job,” he said. “Sometimes we just cannot make shots.”

Like his absent coach preaches, Jokic wasn’t dwelling on who wasn’t available. That’d be wasted energy, which is the last thing the Nuggets can afford right now.

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