Nuggets’ crunch-time win over OKC underscores vital lesson about Nikola Jokic

Austin Rivers has never seen anyone like Nikola Jokic, and he struggles to think of anyone who gets defended like him, either.

The only comparison Rivers can conjure is Joel Embiid, who tends to elicit similar attention as the Nuggets’ anchor.

“He sees the craziest defenses,” said Rivers, whose season-high 22 points helped the Nuggets survive a lowly 38-point second half against the Thunder on Sunday night. “Between him and probably Joel Embiid, I don’t know who gets doubled like that. As soon as he touches it, he’s got like a swarm of guys around him, and he’s gotta make the right read every time.”

Lest anyone question his loyalty, Rivers is riding with Jokic, who he deemed the MVP after the Nuggets’ latest win. Jokic ended the night with 22 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, but his wizardry to close the game, even if he wasn’t necessarily scoring, was the difference.

With 5:45 left in the fourth quarter and the Nuggets down two, the Thunder threw the kitchen sink at the MVP. On one possession, which happened to be extended by an offensive rebound, the Thunder successfully kept the ball from him for nearly 45 seconds.

Oklahoma City fronted him with Darius Bazley, sandwiched him with Aaron Wiggins and then fronted him again with Kenrich Williams. At least one, and sometimes two, opponents were stuck on his hip for the duration.

The broken play ultimately ended with Facu Campazzo at the free-throw line, but it was too long for Jokic to remain uninvolved. On the next possession, Jokic didn’t touch the ball, either, and the Nuggets came away with no points following an errant Will Barton 3-pointer.

“Like we’ve seen a lot lately, teams are double-teaming him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They’re basically daring us to make shots.”

In those instances, Malone said his team needs to react accordingly by cutting, re-posting their star and shifting bodies to get the defense moving. It’s still a work in progress as teams scheme to mask Jokic’s dominance.

But down 93-88 with 4:26 remaining, the Nuggets came out of a timeout and forced the ball into Jokic’s hands. It yielded an open driving lane for Rivers, who missed the layup, but left Jokic open for an easy put-back. Two possessions later, Jokic caught the ball near the elbow, drew two defenders, then rifled a pass to Rivers in the corner.

The clutch 3-pointer — Rivers’ sixth of the night — tied the game at 93.

One possession later, Rivers finished a circus layup that was, once again, a product of Jokic’s gravity. After he caught the ball in the paint, the Thunder sent help and Jokic fired the ball to the open man. One rotation later, Rivers was attacking the rim, benefitting from the step he’d gained off Jokic’s selflessness.

The sequences only accentuated why he needs to be featured in crunch time, regardless of the attention he receives.

Good things happen when Jokic touches the ball.

On Sunday he played supporting actor, ceding the spotlight to Rivers.

The 10-year veteran had been battling a sprained thumb, which he said trainers recommended he rest for four to six weeks. But recognizing how thin the Nuggets are at guard, Rivers said he could tolerate the pain.

Malone rewarded that toughness with Rivers in the closing lineup, he and Jokic playing two-step against the Thunder’s strategy.

“I love being in the game, end of the game,” Rivers said. “It’s my favorite thing to do. … Every play matters.”

Especially the ones where Jokic gets his big paws on the ball.

It’s official: The Nuggets finalized a trade Monday with the Pistons, sending Bol Bol to to Detroit for veteran guard Rodney McGruder and a late second-round pick (via Brooklyn). The deal not only recoups some value for Bol, who never established himself in Denver, but it saves the Nuggets around $500,000 in their effort to avoid the luxury tax.

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