DENVER — In late November, Nikola Jokic, apropos to nothing in particular, called Dallas Mavericks center Dirk Nowitzki the best European player of all time.
Tuesday night, Nowitzki, who's on the final legs of a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career squared off with Jokic, the 22-year-old who's already cemented himself as one of the best big men in the NBA and could one day take over the title of best European player ever.
The two started opposite one another at center, battled both down on the block and around the three-point arc with Jokic emerging victorious. His 29-point, 18-rebound, six-assist night highlighted a critical 105-102 Nuggets victory—just the second win in its last six tries.
"I just want to win the games," a subdued Jokic said from his locker. "Today was kind of my night, I can say, whatever, I scored a lot, and I was aggressive. Not just scoring, as a rebounder too."
Jokic's performance—his second-straight 20-point night—should shake off any concerns about his recent two-week slump where the jovial Serbian was caught up in the biggest funk of his career. Eleven days ago against the Jazz, the typically efficient Jokic scored just 10 points on an uncharacteristic 3-13 shooting. A night later in Sacramento, Jokic again tallied just eight points, this time on 3-10 shooting.
A late-night pep talk from Nuggets coach Michael Malone helped the big man to a bounce-back 22-point, 12-rebound effort in Golden State but questions arose again about Jokic's play after two more irregular showings against Atlanta and Memphis where he scored a combined 23 points on just 7-29 shooting.
In Denver's win over Dallas, which was overshadowed by the Mavericks' 23-point second half comeback that caused Malone to say afterward that the Nuggets looked like a "poorly coached team" in the fourth quarter, Jokic's mojo returned. Maybe for good.
It was a throwback performance from the Serb that made those in attendance and watching at home reminisce about the dominating final months of his sophomore campaign where Jokic initially burst onto the national scene.
The flair and edge that had abandoned Jokic's game at times over the past two weeks stayed with him for the full 33 minutes he spent on the floor. He was aggressive from the opening tip and tallied 10 points in the game's opening quarter. It also helped Jokic's cause that Denver's game plan was to feature its big man early and often and take advantage of the slow-footed Nowtizki.
"We wanted to attack Dirk all night in pick-and-rolls, I think that's a good (plan)," Jokic said. "Not (Dallas') weak spot but if we attack him, we're just going to have an advantage. So that was kind of the goal."
"Dirk has been around for a long time," added Will Barton who got the start at small forward and broke out of his own slump scoring 22 points on a clean 9-15 shooting. "I know he doesn't feel like chasing us young guys."
Jokic has struggled with his three-point shot as of late, so Denver got him going around the hoop. Seven of Jokic's 11 baskets came in the restricted area. Three more came from within 14-feet.
"To me, it's just kind of coaching 101," Malone said. "Play through your best guy where he's most effective, and he's proven time and time again that on the left block he's a special player."
Malone's new-look starting lineup also seemed to help Jokic. After 13 games of starting Jokic alongside Mason Plumlee, the Nuggets—partly due to the Mavericks' usual small ball lineups—opted to insert Barton at small forward, slide Wilson Chandler to power forward and move Plumlee to the bench.
Jokic has always excelled when playing with stretchier four men like he did last year alongside Danilo Gallinari and this season next to Trey Lyles. Chandler and Lyles provided more space tonight.
"Maybe there was more space," Malone said while also noting that he didn't think the lineup switch was necessarily a reason for Jokic's dazzling performance. "...Nikola had an impact on the game no matter if he played with a small, a big or if I was out there.”
Going forward, Malone will adjust his starting lineup based on Denver's opponent. Could the Plumlee and Jokic duo make a return? Possibly. The Nuggets could eventually look towards Lyles and Jokic in the same starting lineup or again slide Chandler to power forward until Paul Millsap's expected return after February's All-Star break.
The Nuggets continue to temper expectations on their franchise cornerstone as Jokic tries to drive Denver towards what could be their first playoff berth in five seasons. It's a lot to ask from a former second-round pick whose rise to prominence practically happened overnight.
"Nikola's a good player, obviously. He's not going to be a great player every night. I know everybody expects that from him," Malone said. "We've got to get off his back a little bit and give him a break."
But when Jokic is scoring like he did against Dallas, he lifts Denver's ceiling. His passing is special, and his floor awareness and basketball IQ are almost uncanny across the league. When he puts the Nuggets on his back and plays with the aggressiveness that he did tonight, Denver's potential reaches new heights.
"I told him when he's aggressive we're hard to beat," Barton said of Jokic. "I know he's such a great passer, but he has to look to score for us to take that next step."