Nikola Jokic brings joy but not relief to the locker room of the Bones Highland Nuggets

MIAMI – Nikola Jokic had a short, simple answer to the chorus of boos that rained down on him on South Beach Monday night.

“I played in Serbia, brother,” said Jokic casually. “I wish you guys could feel that way.”

Jokic’s figurative shoulder offered a clue of his state of mind after breaking Denver’s six-game losing streak after the Nuggets’ 120-111 win over the Heat. His scintillating line – 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists from just 14 shots – offered another. Jokic was unfazed by the Bam Adebayo or the raucous taunts the Heat loyalists tried desperately to use against him.

“It’s always good, the atmosphere,” said Jokic, completely unimpressed by Miami’s late rush.

Jokic said he had to make a comeback in the last game against Milwaukee, but his right wrist worked on him. Instead, he credited Miami’s season for loosening it—which eased the tension on anything and everything around the Nuggets (10-10). It was a fitting and lucky start to a grueling seven-game road trip that could have a significant impact on their playoffs coming April.

But those concerns weren’t even close to their radar for Jokic and Michael Malone. Jokic had one thing to worry about: Wednesday’s game in Orlando. Malone was glad he finally got a good night’s rest. When asked if he would consider growing out his hair a la “The Fro Bros”—from Bones Hyland and Aaron Gordon—Malone joked that he considered several things during his six-game losing streak , including getting a Mohawk.

It’s a good thing he didn’t pull the trigger.

“I don’t know if ‘relief’ was the right word because I don’t think any of us ever doubted that we were still a good team,” Malone said. “… there was certainly some joy, some smiles, some hugs, and as strange as it sounds, winning is a great pain reliever.”

The reality is that even with a healthy Jokic, the Nuggets still have the potential to be a playoff team. The same sentiment permeates players and coaches alike. And if Jokic can keep them afloat, and Jamal Murray can come back from his ACL tear in a reasonable time frame, who knows what kind of surprises the postseason could spell?

“Our mindset never changes,” Malone said. “I think it’s something we’ve been proud of over the years. We’ve had a lot of injuries. It’s the first time we’ve had to play without Nicola, which is a little different. … I’m in our locker room. The boys are like. I’ll go to war with them. There was just one win tonight, but after six consecutive losses, we never said, ‘Okay, now we’re going to change our goals.’ There are still 62 matches left.”

Malone said the Nuggets’ practice on Sunday night in Miami shows a team is eager to break their losing spell rather than dwell on what has already happened. Bones Highland, he said, was flying around.

The Nuggets’ flamboyant rookie brought that same energy to Monday night when he pulled out five 3-pointers on his way to a new career-high 19 points. Some of his hits extended 6 or 7 feet beyond the 3-point arc.

After missing the last two games with an ankle sprain, Hyland said he couldn’t control his excitement.

“I was smiling all the way with my clothes on,” he said.

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