Nikola Jokic isn’t the biggest talker in the NBA. Especially not publicly.
But apparently when you get the big man going about basketball, Jokic demonstrates his brilliance.
“We talked a lot. I’m always a guy who wants to learn a lot,” Isaiah Hartenstein said. “So I think that was a special time for me to talk to them and learn. Like how he uses his eyes to pass and stuff like that. I could always pass, but the way he reads the game. When he tells you when you sit down with him what he’s seeing, it’s special. And I think that’s what makes him an MVP-type of player.”
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“There were certain times [we talked] before practice,” Hartenstein added. “We would mostly be taking ice baths and talk, like, ‘What do you see?’ And how certain things work, and I think that’s how smart he is about the game. I think that’s incredible.”
Jokic and Hartenstein, two European centers, were teammates on the Nuggets for only half of a season. It was long enough for Jokic to leave a giant impression.
Now they’re facing off Saturday afternoon in The Joker’s annual appearance at MSG. He doesn’t carry the draw and cachet of most megastars, but Jokic also dominates the Knicks with a 13-1 career record. This year, he’s in the running to become the first player to win three consecutive MVPs since Larry Bird. Not even Michael Jordan pulled that off.
The MVP race is tight this year with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid as the other candidates.
“It’s different [guarding Jokic],” Hartenstein said. “The difference between him and Embiid is his passing. I think that’s hard for teams to defend. Because you can’t trap him as much as a Joel. But the way he reads the game is always difficult. The way he gets guys involved. And I think playing with him is probably the most I learned is how to make certain reads, how to pass. And I think that’s where he helped me the most.”
Jokic is averaging 24.8 points, 9.9 assists and 11.9 rebounds this season. He missed the other matchup earlier this season against the Knicks — which the Nuggets lost at home — because of a COVID-19 infection.
“This dude’s a back-to-back MVP. He’s a candidate again,” Brunson said. “The Nuggets are the one-seed [in the West]. We just gotta play team basketball. We can’t just let one guy guard him. He’s just that capable of doing a lot in one night. So, it’s gonna take all of us.”
Brunson is trending toward playing Saturday against the Nuggets after missing five of the last six games because of a sore foot.
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The point guard went through Friday’s practice and will be labeled as questionable, but coach Tom Thibodeau implied Brunson will suit up if there’s no discomfort in the morning.
“Feeling a lot better. It’s been a work in progress, but I definitely feel a lot better and progressing in the right direction,” Brunson said.
Brunson characterized his injury as a “bone bruise” after negative X-rays. He’s unclear how it occurred.
“I woke up [after the Heat game two weeks ago] and just I wasn’t feeling great at all,” Brunson said.
He tried to return last week in Sacramento but only managed a half before the injury was reaggravated.
“Leading up to that game, I felt good and didn’t really go as hard to kind of see where I could push myself,” Brunson said. “And obviously game time, you’re going all out. I just felt very uncomfortable. I just knew I probably was just gonna be terrible for my team if I kept playing.”
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The Knicks have won two straight.