Jokic needs serious help from supporting cast

Published June 11, 2021, 7:00 AMRenee Ticzon

The Denver Nuggets can’t let Nikola Jokic do all the work — other players have to step up if they want to beat the Phoenix Suns.

The Denver Nuggets have struggled in their series against the Phoenix Suns, staring at a 2-0 deficit after losing 123-98 in Game 2, which was their biggest loss of the season. They say the playoffs expose a team’s weakness, and right now, the Nuggets' biggest flaw is finding offense.

Before Jamal Murray got hurt, Denver relied heavily on the Murray-Jokic duo. Both players are excellent scorers who can facilitate and make plays. However, when Murray got injured, most, if not all, of the load fell on Nikola Jokic -- something that has become apparent in this series.

In the regular season, the shorthanded Nuggets coped well with the loss of their second star as different guys stepped up each game. In this series, though, they have struggled to find someone to rely on in pressure-packed situations. When the score is tight, they go to Jokic. But when Jokic gets denied, they have no other clear-cut option.

Against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, Austin Rivers and Monte Morris had incredible performances. Now, their impact is negligible. Facundo Campazzo heated up in the first half of Game 1 against the Suns, but he was not able to sustain it long enough. Even Michael Porter Jr., who was nominated for the Most Improved Player award, has struggled to find his shots against the Suns’ defense. He had a terrible Game 2, scoring only 11 points on 3-of-13 shots.

The Nuggets have also had problems defending, allowing the Suns to make 48 percent of their field goal and 3-point attempts in Game 2. Denver made a significant number of runs in the second half, but couldn’t get crucial stops as the lead ballooned to as high as 31 points.

So, what now?

Denver has proven it is capable of performing when facing adversity. In the Orlando bubble, the team was able to overcome a 3-1 deficit twice, against two extremely tough teams in the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers. 

But Jokic can’t do everything, and other players have to consistently step up on offense and defense, especially now that they’re down two games in this Phoenix series. They need a second leader, someone who can help keep the team in focus, like what Chris Paul does for Phoenix. When the Suns scramble and get off track, Paul sorts things out. Jokic can do that, but someone else has to come in and be that second voice for the Nuggets.

Right now, it should be a combination of MPJ and Rivers. MPJ is an incredible shooter, but he is inconsistent and his shot selection needs to improve if they want to move on to the Western Conference finals. He needs to recognize when things aren’t working for him (like in Game 2) and how he should adjust in this series so he can still contribute to the team. 

Rivers, on the other hand, has to be that guy they can rely on defensively. His assignment to guard Damian Lillard last round was a testament to his ability to take on challenges. Paul and Booker have been dominating, but Rivers helping to limit those two will help the Nuggets a lot. Phoenix’s frontcourt relies heavily on their backcourt, so stopping Paul and Booker will surely disrupt the production of guys like Deandre Ayton.

Jokic is the MVP, sure, but he badly needs help. He can’t keep carrying the Nuggets because they’re up against tough teams whose game plan revolves around stopping him. The Nuggets need the entire roster to play with a sense of urgency if they want to keep their season going.