BERKELEY, Calif. — After back-to-back games where Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic has struggled on the offensive end of the floor, Michael Malone met with his star center 1-on-1 Sunday night. Malone's message to Jokic wasn't about the poor numbers he's posting but the fact that he needs to stop putting pressure on himself and that the usual joy and flair Jokic plays with has been absent as of late.
"He just has to take a deep breath and relax. He's had a couple of tough games," Malone said as the Nuggets wrapped up shootaround Monday morning at the University of California — Berkeley. "I met with him last night to just let him know how much I believe in him, stop putting that pressure on yourself. You can see it. I told him, 'I don't care about your numbers right now. I care about you. I care about Nikola Jokic the person before the player,' and I hate to see him like so down on himself and putting so much damn pressure on himself."
"When he's at his best he plays with a passion and a flair and a joy. I have not seen that lately and I just want him to get back to just playing. Take a deep breath and relax and play your game. The last thing I told him was I've been in the league a long time, been around some great players. I've never been around one player that played great for 82 games. Never going to happen. It's a long season. There are ups and downs. He had a couple of tough games shooting-wise. He can still get you 10 assists. He can still get you 10 rebounds. He's still a vital part of not only where we are today but where this franchise is going in the future."
In Denver's last two games — a 99-91 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday and a 106-98 loss in Sacramento against the Kings on Saturday — Jokic struggled on the offensive end of the floor. The 22-year-old, who's averaging 15.7 points per game this season, scored just eight points in both outings. Jokic did record a combined 14 assists in the two games, including 10 against the Kings.
More worrisome though is the fact the Jokic, who's a notoriously efficient shooter and converted 58 percent of his attempts from the field last season, has seen his field goal percentage dip to under 50 percent this year. Against the Jazz and Kings, Jokic shot a combined 6-23 from the field.
Jokic said teams are defending him differently than they did a year ago. Playing alongside Mason Plumlee in Denver's frontcourt as he's done in each of the Nuggets' last nine games means Jokic is being guarded by quicker power forwards rather than centers more often than not. He also said that double-teams and that fact that defenses are focusing in on him are contributing to his struggles.
“Fours are guarding me like they usually do probably because they’re faster than their fives, so they kind of want to dance around me so I don’t have an easy catch,” Jokic said describing how he’s being defended. “It’s part of basketball I think we’re going to figure it out.”
“I feel that teams are coming,” Jokic added, alluding to the fact that defenses are fixated on him more than they were in the past and are trying to force the ball out of his hands. “I’m not going to try so hard to score just because I think it’s unfair to my teammates because they are open. If I see two guys coming to me I’m going to pass the ball. If I see the open guy standing right there I’m going to pass the ball. I’m not going to force anything.”
Malone thinks that his team's inability to feed the post and get Jokic the ball on the block in rhythm are also reasons for his offensive struggles.
"One thing that has been a pet peeve of mine all year long is our ability or inability to feed the post," Malone said. "What I mean by that is we're turning the ball over a lot trying to get him the ball into the post and that is like being a coaches son, learning that in C.Y.O., that drives us nuts. And then when he is open, we don't get him the ball on time, and so he's being forced to catch it way out and now he's got to work so hard. So I think we have to do a better job of getting him the ball in the post and then when the ball goes in there, we have to cut. We're standing, teams are crowding him."
The Nuggets are 5-4 since Malone changed-up his first five and started Jokic and Plumlee together in Denver's frontcourt. The results have generally been good. The Nuggets have dropped winnable games to the likes of Philadelphia and Sacramento but have beaten the Trail Blazers and Warriors both on the road over this recent stretch.
Over those nine games, Denver is the league's 12th-best offense and surprisingly, the third-best defense. Plumlee playing with the starters is one of the reasons why the Nuggets have found a surprising amount of success on that end of the floor.
"I think Mason and Nikola have been good together. I think its helped our defensive numbers and obviously, we're always looking to see where we're at if we have to adjust for anything to get better but overall," Malone said. "I think those guys have been playing pretty good together."
"I think it's going well," Plumlee told BSN Denver about the starting five. "We're playing well together, taking advantage of the post-ups and making teams pay for playing small."
Malone isn't planning on tinkering with his starting group and inserting someone like Trey Lyles, who's played well lately and has great synergy with Jokic, for now. Lyles is averaging 16.5 points off Denver's bench over the last 15 games and on the season has converted 47.6 percent of his attempts from three-point range.
Denver has also excelled when Lyles and Jokic are on the floor together. In the 211 minutes that the two have played together, the Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 66 points. The pairing is the most efficient two-man combination on Denver's roster that's played significant minutes.
The Nuggets plans to start the same group Monday against Golden State but also are aware that the Warriors like to the play a lot of small ball. The Nuggets will mirror the Warriors in that respect when the time comes for smaller lineups.
"Trey, you can definitely make a case for him being a starter, you can definitely make a case for Will Barton to be a starter, but I think having those guys come in off the bench, they play starters minutes," Malone said. "A lot of nights those guys are both on the floor when they close games, which I think is really the most important thing. I think right now playing Mason to give us that rim protection to give us that defensive mindset alongside Nikola is best for us."
"Trey has been fantastic and obviously, we need him to continue to play this way whether he's coming off the bench, starting, playing 30 minutes or whatever it is just to keep on playing his game and give us that scoring, and rebounding and playmaking that he gives every night."