PREVIEW: Nikola Jokic looks to enhance MVP hopes as Denver Nuggets host Milwaukee Bucks

Feb 6, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) passes the ball against Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes (22) during the fourth quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo arrives in Denver with the Milwaukee Bucks and brings with him two MVP awards.

Nikola Jokic is making a case for succeeding Antetokounmpo for the NBA MVP, and can burnish his resume when the Nuggets host Milwaukee on Monday night.

Jokic has played at an elite level for a few years but has reached another tier with his performances this season. The Denver center is coming off a career-high 50-point game in a loss at Sacramento on Saturday night, which came six days after he tied his previous career best of 47.

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Even with those performances the Nuggets has dropped two straight and would like to avoid a third against one of the title contenders. Denver is playing short-handed in the backcourt, which is one reason Jokic carried the offense on Saturday.

“More impressive than the 50 points, the 12 assists and the eight rebounds was his approach, his mindset, his leadership,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after Saturday’s loss. “He knew we were undermanned. He understood how important this game was. Nikola goes out and does his job. He doesn’t care. We lost the game, that’s all he’s going to care about.”

The Nuggets were without guards Gary Harris (adductor strain), Jamal Murray (left knee), P.J. Dozier (hamstring) and Facundo Campazzo (right knee) in Sacramento, which meant more playing time for rookies Markus Howard and RJ Hampton. The two might see extended time Monday if Murray stays sidelined.

Murray, Harris and Campazzo are considered day-to-day. If they cannot play, Hampton has shown he can handle the increased time, especially on the defense end.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been considered like a defensive specialist or anything,” Hampton said Saturday. “I feel like I’ve always been capable of it. I feel like there’s two positions in basketball — on the court and off the court. If coach needs me to play defense, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The Bucks have a healthier lineup and have won four straight after posting back-to-back victories at Cleveland. Like Jokic, Antetokounmpo leads his team in scoring, rebounds and assists, and has a strong supporting cast as well. The next step for him is reaching the NBA Finals and winning a title, and Monday can serve as a measuring stick.

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Milwaukee is 9-40 all-time in games played in Denver and lost both matchups last season, the second coming just before the pandemic put the NBA on a pause last March. The Bucks are looking forward to seeing a different opponent.

“I’m just pleased with the way the guys executed and played,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said after Saturday’s win. “Back-to-back, same team, those are never easy.”

Monday’s matchup is the start of a four-game Western Conference road trip for Milwaukee, which is 3-4 this season against the West. Denver starts a four-game homestand, with the first two against the Eastern Conference.

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The Nuggets will host an Eastern Conference team for the first time this season and are 3-1 against the East. They were scheduled to host Detroit last week but it was postponed due to health and protocol issues with the Pistons.

–Field Level Media