Going into Friday night, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic had been struggling — well, by his standards, at least.
Yes, he had already tallied a pair of triple-doubles. But he wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well, and he was only averaging 14.9 points per game, which is simply not enough for a No. 1 option on a supposed title contender.
But down 21 points against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday evening, Jokic finally made his mark.
The Serbian scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to lead a huge comeback win, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. It still took him until the final frame to wake up, as he had totaled just 10 points off 3-of-12 shooting before the last 12 minutes, but he came through at the best possible time.
The victory vaulted the Nuggets to 6-2 on the season, a record that really isn’t as pretty as it may seem.
Given the inconsistent nature of Jamal Murray and the fact that Gary Harris looks like a mere shell of the player he was two years ago, Denver desperately needs a dominant Jokic, and up until Friday, it hadn’t really gotten that from its All-Star center.
Make no mistake about it: the Nuggets need this version of Jokic going forward if they truly want to contend for a title in a rugged Western Conference that includes a pair of Los Angeles teams that are certainly playing the part of championship-caliber squads.
And we really have no reason to believe that Jokic won’t be great for the rest of the way.
After all, the 24-year-old registered 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor last season, so we know he is capable of big things.
Sure, he is a bit inexperienced, as he has only played in one postseason, but he is good enough to lead Denver on a deep playoff run so long as the Jokic we saw in the fourth quarter against the 76ers continues to show up.
If he doesn’t? Then the Nuggets have a bit of a problem on their hands.
Heck, even with Jokic playing at a high level, Denver doesn’t really have an elite secondary option, which is a problem in and of itself. The Nuggets also aren’t a particularly great three-point shooting team, as they rank 13th in long-range shooting this season and placed 19th in that category a year ago.
So imagine, then, just how shaky the Nuggets would be without Jokic playing at an elite, potentially MVP-caliber level?
Denver’s strengths are that it has a borderline top-10 player in Jokic and a very deep bench, the latter of which is something most other contenders around the NBA can’t truly say.
But the key is Jokic.
It was great to see him seemingly rediscover himself in such a short period of time on Friday night, taking it to one of the best bigs in the league in Joel Embiid in the process.
It would be even better to see Jokic start doing that on a consistent basis.