The NBA is a star-driven league, and teams usually go as their best players go.
The Denver Nuggets have one of the best young star duos around in Nikola Jokic, 26, and Jamal Murray, 24. The pair showed in last season's playoff the heights they can take the Nuggets when they are both in top form, reaching the Western Conference finals.
Jokic and Murray are putting up big numbers again this season for Denver, but the usual dynamic hasn't held. Despite their often stellar play, the Nuggets have not gone as their young stars go. Denver is 17-14 and seventh in the West heading into Thursday's home game against the Washington Wizards.
Jokic has looked like an MVP candidate in the first half, averaging 27.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.4 assists on 56.2% shooting overall, 40.8% from deep and 87.5% on free throws. After some early inconsistency, Murray has his scoring average up to 21.0 points per game on 47.4% shooting, 38.7% on 3s and 82.2% on free throws.
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the Nuggets are seventh in the Western Conference. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports)
Their last five games have even more impressive. Murray is averaging 32.8 points on 58.7% shooting, 54.5% from deep and 90% on free throws. Jokic is averaging 29.6 points on 55.6% from field, 52.2% from deep and 96.3% on free throws.
Yet, the Nuggets are 2-3 in those five games.
"It's a long season. We're not stressing," Murray said earlier this week. "We know we can beat the teams we're supposed to beat. We know we'll be in the playoffs and it doesn't matter who we're playing. We're going to give it our best shot."
Defense has been a big issue for the Nuggets, but improved health could go a long way to helping remedy that. Key role players Gary Harris, P.J. Dozier, Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green have all missed significant time in February.
A full rotation will be vital down the stretch as teams play 35-40 games in 65 days during what promises to be a frantic second half of the season. For the Nuggets, health could the deciding factor in securing a top-six playoff seed or fighting for one of the last two spots in the play-in tournament.
"The mood is just to get healthy. We've got a lot of bodies out," Murray said. "Sometimes it's just a chemistry thing. Other teams have been playing together for a while, and we're out here just trying to figure it out."
Here are four more key things we're watching Thursday around the NBA:
Harden at home in Brooklyn
James Harden has been everything the Nets hoped for when they acquired him last month. In 19 games, Harden has taken the reins as Brooklyn's primary facilitator, averaging 25.2 points on 49.5% shooting and 41.7% from deep, along with 11.6 assists and 8.5 rebounds. Without Kevin Durant, the Nets have won seven in a row heading into a matchup with the Magic. At 21-12 and still improving chemistry, Brooklyn is establishing itself as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
James Harden and the Nets or Joel Embiid and the Sixers: Who is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference? (Photo: Tim Nwachukwu, Getty Images)
Or is Philadelphia the team to beat in the East? The Sixers currently occupy the top seed in the conference ahead of a showdown against Luka Doncic and the Mavs, a half-game ahead of the Nets. Joel Embiid is a leading MVP candidate, averaging 29.8 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 52.7% overall and 40.5% from 3-point range and playing stellar defense. If the Sixers can shore up their bench, the road to the NBA Finals could go through Philadelphia.
Giannis vs. Zion
Or does the road to the Finals go through Milwaukee? The Bucks are all-in to make a run at the title, and two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will surely have something to say about who comes out of the East. Milwaukee has won three in a row after losing five straight and looks to maintain momentum against the Pelicans and Zion Williamson, the first-time All-Star who has been a menace for opposing defenses.
Knicks a playoff team?
With the play-in tournament offering more chances to make the playoffs, could this be the year the Knicks get back for the first time since 2013? Tom Thibodeau has a fun young team buying in and playing hard in his first season in New York. With first-time All-Star Julius Randle leading the Knicks offense into a matchup with the Kings, it's not a far-fetched notion. At 15-17, New York is tied in the standings with Boston and Miami, last season's Eastern Conference finals participants, for ninth place.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.
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