MIAMI – Nikola Jokic had a short, simple answer to the chorus of boos that rained down on him Monday night in South Beach.
“I played in Serbia, brother,” Jokic said casually. “I wish you guys can feel that.”
Jokic’s metaphorical shoulder shrug offered one clue to his state of mind after the Nuggets’ 120-111 win over the Heat snapped Denver’s six-game losing streak. His blistering line – 24 points on only 14 shots, 15 rebounds and seven assists – offered another. Jokic was unbothered by Bam Adebayo or the raucous taunts Heat faithful tried, desperately, to use against him.
“It’s always nice, the atmosphere,” said Jokic, wholly unaffected by Miami’s late-arriving crowd.
Jokic said he was supposed to return last game against Milwaukee, but his balky right wrist acted up on him. Instead, he credited the Miami weather for loosening it up – thereby easing the tension on anything and everything surrounding the Nuggets (10-10) over their miserable stretch. It was a fitting and fortunate start to a grueling seven-game road trip, one that could have a monumental impact on their playoff standing come April.
But those concerns, for Jokic and for Michael Malone, weren’t even close to their radar. Jokic was concerned about one thing: Wednesday’s game in Orlando. Malone was happy he’d finally get a good night’s rest. When asked whether he’d consider growing his hair out a la “The Fro Bros” — Bones Hyland and Aaron Gordon — Malone joked he’d contemplated many things during their six-game losing streak, including getting a mohawk.
It’s a good thing he didn’t pull the trigger.
“I don’t know if ‘relief’ was the right word because I don’t think any of us ever doubted that we were still a good team,” Malone said. “… There was definitely some joy, some smiles, some hugs, and as corny as that sounds, winning is a great pain-reliever.”
The reality is that with a healthy Jokic, the Nuggets are still likely a playoff team. That’s the pervasive sentiment among players and coaches, alike. And if Jokic can keep them afloat, and Jamal Murray can return from his ACL tear in a reasonable timeframe, who knows what type of surprises the postseason might yield?
“Our mentality never changes,” Malone said. “I think that’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on for years. We’ve had a ton of injuries. This is the first time we’ve had to play without Nikola, which is a little bit different. … I love the guys in our locker room. I’ll go to war with them. Tonight was just one win, but after losing six in a row, by no means have we said, ‘Alright, well, we’re going to change our goals now.’ There’s 62 games left.”
Malone said the Nuggets’ practice Sunday night in Miami reflected a team eager to break its losing spell rather than one dwelling on what had already happened. Bones Hyland, he said, was flying around.
The Nuggets’ ebullient rookie brought the same energy Monday night as he drained five 3-pointers en route to a new career-high 19 points. Some of his hits extended 6 or 7 feet beyond the 3-point arc.
After missing the last two games with an ankle sprain, Hyland said he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“I was smiling the whole way putting on my clothes,” he said.
As Miami tried to slow Denver’s attack in the second half, employing a zone to minimize Jokic’s deflating production, Hyland’s eyes lit up.
“I always live by ‘shoot ‘em out the zone,’” he said.
The Nuggets drained 18 of 35 3-point looks, which was as much a welcome sight as the dual returns of Jokic and Hyland. With both back in the fold, the prism of a daunting two-week road trip didn’t feel so heavy.
“I just think about the next game,” Jokic said. “I just want to win every next game. I think that’s the only way how we can make something or do something.”