DENVER -- Nikola Jokic's post All-Star break stretch run hasn't gotten off to the start the second year center or the Nuggets hoped it would.
In Jokic's three games since the All-Star break, the 22-year-old is averaging just 5.3 points. He hasn't looked like the same player on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor and has looked tired. Jokic said he was experiencing fatigue after Denver's first practice since the break.
“No, I’m really tired," Jokic said. "My body is tired. I’m trying to get as much rest as I can. Use all of the trainers to help me. Nobody is going to feel bad for me. I’m going to go out there and play.”
Michael Malone agreed.
“We have to get him back,” Malone said. “There’s a lot of pressure on a 22-year-old kid to lead us to the playoffs. Maybe that gets to him a little bit. I know he’s tired. He went down to the All-Star break fatigued and was obviously very busy down there. But we have to play through him more and the guys around him have to help him out.”
But after the Grizzlies handled the Nuggets 105-98 Sunday, Jokic said fatigue hasn't been an issue.
"No. I'm not tired. No. I'm not tired," Jokic said. "I'm playing the same way."
So what gives?
Defenses are focusing in on him more than they ever have and Jokic is seeing double-teams for the first time in his career. Also, defenders are inching just a step or two closer when they're in help-side and Jokic has the ball. They're simply paying more attention to him.
That increase in attention has helped guys like Danilo Gallinari, who's averaging 19.7 points since the break, up from the 17.2 he averaged over the prior 56 games. Also, Gary Harris. Harris, who's quietly having a breakout year on the offensive end of the floor, is averaging 22.3 points on 16.7 field goal attempts over his last three games. He's also shooting 25-49 (51 percent) from three over his past seven games. Before the break, Harris put in 13.4 points on 10.5 shots per night.
All that's well and good. The Nuggets need those two at their best if they're going to hold onto the eighth seed in the West this season. But they'll also need Jokic to give them more than he is right now.
Jokic is averaging just 6.3 field goal attempts over his last three games, down from 11.3 per game prior to the break. A near 50 percent cut.
However, Jokic is still a playmaker for Denver when he's on the floor. He's creating mismatches in transition and slinging baseball passes across court on command. Jokic dished out six and seven assists respectively over his last two games but just hasn't had the usual scoring punch to go with it.
"I'm not expecting Nikola to get 20, 15 and 10 every night. I think maybe some people are, which is probably a little bit unfair to such a young player," Malone said.
This all could be much ado about nothing. In two weeks we might look back on this stretch just like we view the December-long worry about Jokic getting into foul trouble. Something that was a concern, still is, but is likely just a small bump in the road Jokic is about to drive over. He's making so much progress in that department that Sunday afternoon against the Grizzlies he wound up to commit a foul in the backcourt, something he's been prone to do out of frustration this year, and stopped himself short.
Defenses are also zeroing in on his passes more and more.
When you're an opposing defender guarding a Harris, Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, or Will Barton-type, you're playing Jokic for the pass. You know if you don't have your head on a swivel he'll whizz the ball right by your left ear. You're keeping an eye on Jokic and an eye on your man, ready to jump on any pass thrown your way.
In February, Jokic is averaging 2.9 turnovers per game. That's up from 2.1 times he turned the ball over per night in December.
There's likely some truth to fatigue being a factor in Jokic's performance as well.
A person who was around Jokic at All-Star weekend and had knowledge of the Serbian's itinerary while in New Orleans told BSN Denver Sunday that Jokic was shuttled to event after event, one media session after another, doing a variety of activities representing his home nation of Serbian as well over the four days he spent in The Big Easy. It's a required schedule that every All-Star follows but it can undoubtedly be taxing on the body.
Combine All-Star weekend with his around-the-clock basketball schedule over the past two years. Summer League before his rookie season, 80 regular season games, an Olympic Qualifying Tournament in July, the Rio Olympics in August, and 51 more games this season.
That's a lot of basketball.
Jokic is young, he'll likely get through this stretch, but his slump has helped sink Denver's lead for the eighth seed to just one game. The Nuggets are 4-6 in their last ten and are trying to hold off the Sacramento Kings, who rode their post-DeMarcus Cousins high to a win over Denver just four days ago.
Sacramento will likely slip into "must keep our oddly protected draft pick that we likely got ripped off in a deal for" mode over the next couple of weeks, and Portland, who's riding their own high in the form of Jusuf Nurkic, is just 1-2 since the break with their lone win coming against the Mavericks.
New Orleans is dangerous but it looks like the Pelicans still don't have enough around Anthony Davis and Cousins to pose a threat. The Pelicans frontcourt duo uses a combined 74.5 percent of New Orleans' possessions while they're in the game. That's nearly doubling other star pairings like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, and LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
The Nuggets are still in the driver's seat for the eighth seed in the Western Conference but they'll need more offense from Jokic to secure a first-round series with the Warriors. In fact, Denver needs consistency from everyone. Their Offensive Rating is down 6.7 points from the 113.8 per 100 possessions they scored between Dec. 15 and the break.
For one of the few times this season, Denver is completely healthy, save for Kenneth Faried, who's sidelined with low back soreness. Health can be a double-edged sword, though. A healthy Gallinari and Chandler take away from the sheer amount of looks Jokic gets on offense. The Nuggets also have a slightly favorable schedule over the first half of March which includes two games against Sacramento.
The Nuggets are still leading a middling pack of fringe playoff teams, a group that also includes the Timberwolves and Mavericks, which makes six different teams within 3.5 games of each other for the eighth seed. Ones like Portland and possibly New Orleans and Dallas look like they could be there to stay while Minnesota and Sacramento will likely program their GPS towards the lottery at some point.
The teams that will stick with Denver for the eighth seed until the bitter end are still up in the air, but what's certain is that the Nuggets will need more from Jokic to power their April stretch run towards the postseason.