Nikola Jokic is not the biggest talker in the NBA. Especially not publicly.
But apparently, when you get the big man into basketball, Jokic shows his brilliance.
“We talk a lot. I’m always a guy who wants to learn a lot,” Isaiah Hartenstein said. “So I think it was a special time to talk to them and learn. Like how he uses his eyes to pass and things like that. He could always pass “But the way he reads the game. When you sit down with him, he tells you what he’s looking at, 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. “Most of the time we would take 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 amazing.”
Jokic and Hartenstein, two European centers, were teammates on the Nuggets for only half a season. It was long enough for Jokic to leave quite an impression.
Now they square off on Saturday afternoon at The Joker’s annual appearance at MSG. He doesn’t have the appeal or 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 achieved that.
The MVP race is close this year with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid as the other contenders.
“It’s different (protecting 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 catch him as much as Joel. But the way he reads the game is always difficult. The way he engages the guys. And I think playing around with him is probably the most I learned about 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, due to a COVID-19 infection.
“This guy is a back-to-back MVP. He is a candidate again,” Brunson said. “The Nuggets are the single seed (in the West). We just have to play team basketball. We can’t let a guy protect him. He is that capable of doing so much in one night. So, he’s going to take us all.”
Brunson tends to play on Saturday against the Nuggets after missing five of the last six games with a sore foot.
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The point guard went through practice Friday and will be labeled questionable, but coach Tom Thibodeau hinted that Brunson will suit up if there’s no discomfort in the morning.
“I feel better. It’s been a work in progress, but I’m definitely feeling much better and progressing in the right direction,” Brunson said.
Brunson characterized his injury as a “bone bruise” after negative X-rays. He is not clear how it happened.
“I woke up (after the Heat game two weeks ago) and I just didn’t feel right at all,” Brunson said.
He tried to come back last week in Sacramento, but was only halfway there before the injury worsened.
“Before that game, I felt good and I didn’t really push myself that hard to see where I could push myself,” Brunson said. “And obviously come game time, you’re going to give it your all. I felt very uncomfortable. I just knew that it would probably be terrible for my team if I kept playing.”
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The Knicks have won two in a row.