The Utah Jazz rolled into Denver on Sunday afternoon riding an 11-game winning streak and boasting the best record in the league. They left with their first loss in over three weeks because they had absolutely no answer for the Nuggets' star big man, Nikola Jokic.
Finishing with 47 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, Jokic simply did whatever he wanted in his 37 minutes on the court, as he led the Nuggets to a 128-117 win. In the process, he tied his career-high and recorded his 20th straight double-double to start the season, joining Bill Walton as the only two players to do that since the NBA/ABA merger.
It was a brilliant performance, and the coming out party for what has been a truly elite season from Jokic so far. Twenty games is too early to start talking about the MVP debate in earnest, but very few guys, if any, have matched his level of play and production. Jokic is putting up 26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game, while shooting 57.4 percent from the field. He's the only player in the league to be in the top-15 in all of those categories.
But while his all-around play has been outstanding, it's the scoring that really stands out, just as it did against the Jazz. Jokic has never been a non-scorer, but that's also never been the main focus of his game. He's averaged over 20 points just once in his career, and is a rare example of a pass-first center. If you asked anyone about the big man, his unique passing ability would always come up before anything else.
This season, though, he's been scoring more than ever. As a quick frame of reference, Sunday marked the fifth time this season that Jokic has scored at least 35 points. In his previous 381 career regular season games, Jokic had only done that 13 times.
In typical Joker fashion, he was pretty nonchalant after the game when the Nuggets' TV broadcast asked him if he was making a concerted effort to be more aggressive in terms of scoring the ball.
"I don't know," Jokic said. "Sometimes yes. It depends. It depends what kind of game it is, how I feel. It's not that I come into the game and think 'I'm gonna do this.' I see what the game gives me."
That's sort of a nothing answer, but it really is the truth. Has Jokic looked to score more? Yes, definitely. But his shots are only up about three per game from last season, his usage rate is up only 2.3 percent and he's also averaging a career-high in assists, so it's not as if he's completely changed his approach.
The big difference is that he's moved more of his offense inside, and is taking those extra shots around the rim where he's dominant. As a result, he's getting to the free throw line more than he ever has in his career. If that wasn't good enough on its own, he's also been much more efficient when he has decided to step away from the basket.
Here's a detailed look at Jokic's shooting splits between last season and this season.
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Paint (non RA) FG%
Free throw attempts
Free throw %
Those differences were all on display against the Jazz.
Dominant in the paint
Jokic went 11 of 12 around the rim in the Nuggets' big win, making easy work of everyone he was matched up with, even former Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He's just too skilled, too big and too powerful for defenders to deal with. If he catches at the elbow he can get by you off the dribble, and if he gets a deep post touch he'll just bully you.
That combination is why he's not only one of the most dominant interior scorers in the league, but one of the most unique and entertaining players to watch. Just look at this array of moves he used to destroy the Jazz. It's amazing. There's no one like him in the league.
Getting to the line
Jokic is shooting a career-high 5.8 free throws per game this season, and makes 83.6 percent of them, which means teams can't foul him as a preventative tactic. Instead, they end up fouling him because they've been beaten by another of his skillful maneuvers.
Against the Jazz he went 9 of 10 from the line for his fifth game already this season with double-digit free throw attempts. Last season he only did that three times.
3-pointer is falling
Throughout his career, Jokic has been a decent 3-point shooter, but aside from the 2017-18 season when he knocked down 39.6 of his attempts, he's hovered in the low 30s. This season, though, he's turned things around and is hitting on 38.4 percent of his looks from beyond the arc.
On Sunday, he was a perfect 4 of 4, but overall this one is more of a wait and see scenario. We know he can hit the 3, but whether or not he'll do so consistently for the whole season remains to be seen. If he does it will all but ensure a career-year.
All told, what Jokic did in this game was merely an extension of what he's been doing since opening night -- putting up the best numbers of his career and carrying the Nuggets with beautiful, high-level basketball. Again, it's too early to really talk about who should be the MVP, but if he's still doing this in a few months time, he'll be right at the top of candidate list.