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Denver Nuggets fans, and NBA die-hards who’ve found themselves flipping over to Altitude Sports on League Pass more and more often of late, breathed a sigh of relief on Friday night. Nikola Jokic, the 6-foot-10-inch Serbian big man whose playmaking gifts earned international attention during the 2016 Summer Olympics and are starting to take stateside audiences by storm, was ready to return to the lineup after missing three games with a hip injury that looked really nasty when he went down late in a win over the Phoenix Suns.
Despite plans to keep Jokic on a minutes restriction in his first game back, Nuggets coach Michael Malone saw early in Friday night’s meeting with the Denver Nuggets that the 21-year-old was in form and ready to roll, so he decided to let the big man eat … and he devoured the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in just about every way you could prepare venison.
Jokic carved up the Bucks defense all night long, leading the Nuggets to a 121-117 win with 20 ponts on 8-for-15 shooting, 13 rebounds (six on the offensive glass) and 11 assists in 32 minutes — the first triple-double of his NBA career, and the first by a Nugget in nearly four years.
“This will be the first of many triple-doubles,” Malone told reporters, striking a note that many of Jokic’s Nuggets teammates echoed after the game:
Congrats to my guy on the first of many triple doubles @NJokic15
— Wilson Chandler (@wilsonchandler) February 4, 2017
My man @JokicNikola15 got his first (of many) triple double ???? congrats bro. Also great team win ????????
— MB5™ (@Mbeasy5) February 4, 2017
So proud of my young fella @jokara95 aka "THE JOKER" for his 1st of many career Triple Doubles tonight.. what's not a Joke tho are his numbers since the start of 2017: 23.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 60% FG — Tune in because this KID is SPECIAL!!!
A photo posted by Mike Miller (@letitflymm13) on Feb 3, 2017 at 9:41pm PST
MAGIC @JokicNikola15 …????????????????????????????????
— Juancho Hernangomez (@juanchohg14) February 4, 2017
Got the much needed W but tonight was all about @jokara95 & his return with a big triple-double! Congrats big guy on your first triple-double long awaited many more to come! #NuggetsNation #MileHighBasketball
A photo posted by Kenneth Faried (@kennethfaried35) on Feb 3, 2017 at 10:16pm PST
As BSNDenver.com’s Harrison Wind notes, Jokic’s stat-stuffing effort was nothing new, and might even have been his best overall game of the 2016-17 season. (By “Game Score,” a metric aimed at tallying up and estimating a player’s single-game on-court productivity, Jokic has had five bigger performances this year.) After opening eyes during his rookie campaign, Jokic has been nothing short of remarkable since being reinserted into the starting lineup in mid-December.
Over his last 20 games, he’s averaging a sterling 20.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists and one block in 28.8 minutes per game, and shooting 62 percent from the floor, 38.6 percent from 3-point range and 81.7 percent from the foul line. Malone put the ball in Jokic’s hands, and the big man has rewarded his faith, notching an assist on 26.5 percent of Denver’s scores when he’s been on the floor this season; before this year, only four players listed at 6-foot-10 or taller had ever dropped dimes on a higher share of their teammates’ buckets, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Denver is now 15-13 with Jokic in the starting lineup, including wins in seven of his last nine games to improve to 22-27 on the season and climb into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Nuggets have scored like the league-best Warriors with Jokic on the floor, and like the 24th-ranked Lakers offense when he’s off it. With Jokic on the court, the Nuggets have the point differential (+4.5 points per 100 possessions) of not just a playoff team, but one of the half-dozen best teams in the league; when he’s out, they have been nearly as bad as the Brooklyn Nets.
The dude is very, very good, is what I’m saying, and has been long before finally ticking the assist odometer into double digits by hitting Kenneth Faried for a dunk with just under five minutes left on Friday night. Still, triple-doubles are cool, and notching your first one in the NBA is special, which is why Malone made sure Jokic got the game ball in the Nuggets locker room.
Jokic, it seems, really, really appreciated that.
“I hugged him,” Jokic said.
The reporters in the scrum laughed.
“I was naked, and I hugged him,” he added, deadpan.
They laughed more.
“No, that’s true,” he concluded.
Of course it is. Sometimes, when you are overcome with feelings of love and appreciation, you just need to bring it in for the real thing, clothes be damned.
Jokic also had all of his teammates sign the game ball, so that he could remember everyone with whom he shared the big night:
A photo posted by Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) on Feb 3, 2017 at 9:48pm PST
No word yet on whether he suited up beforehand, or just went locker-to-locker buck naked with a Sharpie.
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