Jokic scored 31 by the end of the third quarter against the star rookie.

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) defends against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 15, 2024, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)


AUSTIN, Texas — It doesn’t matter in the playoffs when every game is meant to be treated as a must-win, but Michael Malone’s self-aware coaching flaw in the regular season is his occasional over-dependence on Nikola Jokic.

Fortunately for Malone, his superstar player is almost always game for it. Jokic officially became MVP-eligible Friday night by playing his 65th game for the ninth consecutive season. He was expecting to return in the fourth quarter of a tight game.

But through a combination of factors — Jokic’s own dominance against Victor Wembanyama earlier in the game, the second unit’s steadying minutes with the lead in jeopardy, and of course, Malone’s self-restraint — Jokic was able to stay firmly planted on the bench. In a 117-106 win over San Antonio with two challenging matchups remaining in Denver’s road trip, that was the biggest win of all.

“It was hanging in the balance,” Malone said. “Do we get him in? Do we get him in? Do we get him in?”

Calling Jokic to the scorer’s table is Malone’s psychological defense mechanism, his physical reflex whenever his face starts to turn red during a poor stint from his bench.

Denver’s last two wins have been miracle work. First, he managed to keep Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to modest minutes in Miami thanks to clutch performances from Reggie Jackson and Christian Braun. It left him with only one ounce of guilt: “Somehow, someway, I’ve gotta get Nikola’s minutes down,” he said Wednesday.

Malone got his wish in Austin. Braun scored seven fourth-quarter points a second straight game. Justin Holiday was in double figures. A four-point lead late in the third got stretched to 20 without Jokic’s help. Jokic played 30:54, his fewest minutes in more than a month.

“For C.B., for Peyton (Watson), even for Zeke (Nnaji), for those guys to go out there and just to get more confident and more aggressive in their respective roles, with now 15 games to go … that’s been a big part of us being 11-1 out of the (All-Star) break,” Malone said. “We’re getting consistency and productivity from the bench. I’m really impressed with those guys.”

“I was always ready, but I appreciated not needing to get in,” Jokic said.

He had something to do with it, too. After Wembanyama blocked Jokic on the first possession of the game, the Nuggets navigated around the 7-foot-4 rookie with relative ease. They got clever by putting Aaron Gordon in the post and Jokic out on the perimeter several times. The two-time MVP could wait for Wembanyama to roam in Gordon’s direction, providing a clear lane and a running start to get floaters over the top of Wembanyama’s wingspan. Jokic perfected his timing and got shots off before Wembanyama could get his hands up.

“Nikola is like a savant,” Malone said. “‘OK, I see what he did there. How can I make sure that doesn’t happen again? How can I use my body?’ Get into him, collapse him a little bit, get that hook off a little bit further out.”

Other times, Jokic countered the rookie’s physical gifts by using his own. With brute strength, he shouldered the 20-year-old deep into the restricted area to generate space for one post-up hook shot. He drew fouls with his physicality.

“They didn’t back down,” Wembanyama said. “They weren’t scared of challenging me at the rim.”

During one dead ball as Jokic was piling up his 31 points, he even wandered over to Wemby to tell him something.

“Just some insights on what not to do on defense,” Wembanyama said, not wanting to go into detail. He did say it’s not very often that he receives in-game tutorials from opponents, though.

“At the same time, (Jokic is) somebody I want to compete against for years and give 100% against, but also someone I respect a lot, so I hope there’s gonna be great battles for the future,” he said. “They might go back-to-back this year, so the whole project is very, very nice.”

Jokic reiterated what he said months ago in Denver, that he believes patience is critical and that Wembanyama will “change the game” as he continues to develop. For now, though, Jokic has asserted himself as the dominant big man — enough to help earn himself a fourth quarter off.

Jokic on Aldridge

With Wembanyama representing perhaps the next generation of Hall of Fame centers behind Jokic, the generation that came before Jokic was also in attendance Friday. Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge were both court-side in San Antonio. Aldridge and his son were seated immediately next to Denver’s bench, sharing interactions with Jokic and Malone at various points during the game. Jokic accidentally stepped on Aldridge’s feet on his way to the scorer’s table at one point.

“It was cool,” Jokic said. “LaMarcus was a really tough player, and I played a playoff series against him when he was here in San Antonio. So it was cool to see him. When I was starting my career, I really looked up to him just because he has such a deadly simple game. It was really fun to watch him.”