The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Jokic, Murray benched during a tight playoff race

Dec 26, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reacts after getting ejected in the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets find themselves playing meaningful basketball in March as they currently sit at 35-30 on the season. While they are over .500, they are on the outside looking in to the playoffs. Denver has dropped to the ninth seed in the Western Conference playoff race, tied with the red-hot Utah Jazz.

Denver has gone 2-2 in the month of March, with both wins on the road, and with 17 games remaining, the Nuggets have to find a way to win games. While there has been a few positives, there certainly has been plenty of negative moments. Without further ado, here is the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good” Nikola Jokic responds versus Cleveland

With a forgettable game on Tuesday where Jokic was benched in the fourth quarter, he came into Wednesday’s game on the second night of a back-to-back more enthused, determined and engaged than he has been and responded with one of his best games of the season against one of the best players in the league. As spectacular as LeBron James was in the Cavaliers’ 113-108 win against Denver — and he was, piling up 39 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists, while making shot after shot, no matter the angle, degree of difficulty or how hard the defender made it — Jokic was just as incredible. Jokic finished with 36 points, 13 rebounds and six assists as he went an ultra-efficient 12-for-14 from the field while also going 10-for-11 from the free throw line. He had an explosion in the third quarter as he scored 17 points and gave Denver the lead, only for James to steal the show. After the game, head coach Michael Malone was high on his big man.

“That was the Nikola that we need; very aggressive and obviously we called his number quite a bit, and he delivered for us and he made big, big plays. I ran him the entire third quarter because he had a great rhythm going, and for him to go out there and get 36 points and 13 rebounds, and for him to do it as efficiently as he did it — 12-of-14 from the field was remarkable — it’s great to see Nikola play like that. Hopefully with 17 games to go — not that he has to put up those numbers every night, but just a more aggressive — Nikola is good for our team.”

The Bad: Jokic benched versus Dallas

It wasn’t long ago that Denver beat San Antonio and Malone told reporters that Jokic should be in the MVP conversation. “He is one of the best all-around players in the game — not young players, not big guys, not small guys, but one of the best players in the NBA and he’s proving it against the best teams and the best players every single night.”

A few games later, with Denver holding on to that eighth spot for dear life against the tanking Dallas Mavericks, Jokic and Jamal Murray were both benched for the entire fourth quarter. When Malone was asked about it, he said, “it’s one thing to miss shots and to make mistakes. It’s another thing to go out there and just kind of go through the motions.” Malone sent a message to his star player, who has been in in a funk since the return of Paul Millsap. Against Dallas, he finished with only four points as he went 2-for-9 from the field and only went to the free-throw line once. He also had a plus/minus of -8 and hasn’t looked like his aggressive self. Malone said that he would like Jokic to be more aggressive and not defer to other players on the team. He responded in a 113-108 loss to the Cavaliers with 36 points and 13 rebounds and Denver will need more games like this if they plan on making a push at the playoffs.

The Ugly: The Western Conference Playoff Race

It’s the beginning of March and there are already must-win games as teams ranked three through eight are separated by a total of four games. With the loss on Wednesday to Cleveland, Denver dropped below the Los Angeles Clippers to the ninth spot — with other teams surging. Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers are in third and currently riding an eight-game winning streak, the New Orleans Pelicans are in fourth and have won 10 in a row, the San Antonio Spurs are in fifth and may get Kawhi Leonard back from injury soon, the Minnesota Timberwolves are surviving without the injured Jimmy Butler and are in sixth, the Oklahoma City Thunder are figuring things out in seventh and have the reigning league MVP in Russell Westbrook, and the L.A. Clippers are somehow continuing to win games with their new look in eighth. To make matters worse, the Utah Jazz are on a nine-game winning streak that doesn’t look like it’s coming to an end any time soon as they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NBA. Denver is finally seeing their team healthy, for what it’s worth, after having just welcomed Millsap back into the mix. Denver is in ninth place and must string together a few wins if they plan on making the playoffs. Their current two-game losing streak doesn’t help their situation, so they must head into each game with the idea that it could possibly be the game that keeps them from the postseason for the fourth consecutive year.