The questions about Nikola Jokic and his lack of aggressiveness hounded Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone last week. Jokic, the best player on the team and the only all-star, was deferring when Denver needed him to impose his will.
After the last two games those questions are starting to fade. Jokic has hit two game-winning jumpers in the final seconds and carried the Nuggets to a four-game winning streak heading into Tuesday's matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.
Jokic has always been a team-first player and at times has been reluctant to be the go-to guy. He has become that player after hitting a 15-foot jumper to beat Philadelphia on Friday, capping a franchise-best 21-point, fourth-quarter comeback, and then draining a turnaround jumper with 3.3 seconds left against Minnesota on Sunday.
The Hawks have a player who is willing to take the big shots in Trae Young, but Atlanta hasn't been able to turn that into many wins. The Hawks have lost three straight and six of their last seven, with the latest setback coming in overtime at Portland on Sunday.
It was the first in a five-game Western Conference road swing for Atlanta, and it doesn't get any easier against Denver. While the Nuggets are deep and can get scoring from different areas -- five players are averaging double figures in scoring -- the Hawks get a majority of their offense from three players -- Young (26.3 points, 8.4 assists per game), Jabari Parker (17.6 points) and John Collins (17 points a game).
Atlanta's depth took a hit when Collins was suspended by the league for 25 games for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA anti-drug program. He has served three games of that suspension.
In his absence the Hawks need to find offense from somewhere else. Parker has tried to fill that void, averaging 26 points in the last two games. The former No. 2 overall pick is trying to establish himself with Atlanta, and it's a work in progress.
"I can't say I'm reaching my expectations if we aren't winning," he said after Sunday's overtime loss. "Just trying to keep that mentality and hopefully we bounce back against Denver."
It will be tough. After a couple of losses in which Malone questioned his team's effort, the Nuggets have bounced back. Not only is Jokic providing heroics, but guard Jamal Murray has played well and Barton's play has been vital over the past two games.
He scored 20 in the win over Philadelphia on Friday and then hit two 3-pointers in overtime Sunday to end a stretch of 8 minutes, 3 seconds without a point for Denver. He then ran a two-man game with Jokic to set up the winning shot against the Timberwolves.
"He's just such a complete player," Malone said of Barton after Sunday's win. "That's why that last play, I wanted to put the ball into his hands. ... Will had it going. I wanted Will and Nikola to make the play."
--Field Level Media