HOUSTON – After the final buzzer sounded in the Rockets’ 107-104 win over the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic, still in uniform, sat motionless in the locker room, his hands clutching the scoreboard.
Around him, teammates were in the process of unwinding from a tough, physical game — some dressed up, some talking to the media and others walking to team buses. But Jokic remained in his seat, frustrated and scared. A few minutes later, after the game, Jokic expressed his frustration to a team official and crumpled the paper with one hand and threw it away.
Jokic, the NBA’s top player in the world, had just posted a 36-point, 21-rebound, 11-assist stat line — a Herculean effort that would warrant a win on most nights. It certainly would have been more than enough to beat last year’s version of this team. But not tonight. Not on these rockets. They are 6-3, have won 6 straight after starting 0-3 and are now ranked 10th in both offense and defense. Now things are a little different.
For much of the second half — and especially the final minutes of the fourth quarter — Sunday night’s game didn’t feel like a regular November game, and it certainly didn’t feel like just a ninth-season game. Every possession was that important, with Nuggets coach Michael Malone scribbling furiously on the clipboard as timeouts expired and Rockets coach Ime Udoka taking to the floor to give last-minute instructions. A deafening roar made the walls of Toyota Center shake as two offensive beacons, Jokic and Alperen Shengun, took it out.
But from the emotion on both ends of the aisle — jovial Rockets high-fiving and Dawes Jeff Green, a former Nugget, drooling outside the locker room — it was clear that for Houston, at least, these nights meant more. They have a long and long time.
“It gives us another feather,” Udoka said of the win. “It gives us practice getting kills late in the game, getting the shots we need and things we need, defending certain actions. It’s good to get those practices in. We’re used to it, but putting it in the game is a different animal. I’m happy with how we finished.”
It was also clear that the match against Jokic meant a lot to Shengun. When award-winning rapper and producer Rick Ross wrote the song “Idols Become Rivals,” he wasn’t referring to the infighting between the two-time MVP and the third-year big man. But the premise, competing with someone you once looked up to, is the underlying theme that connects the two.
Respect 🤝 @nuggets | #Rockets pic.twitter.com/HLtUDqeyl1
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) November 13, 2023
From the opening tip, Shengyun wanted Jokic to make his presence felt. In previous days of practice, with Green helping the team through Denver plays, it all came back to Jokic, the Nuggets’ powerhouse. Of course, keeping it cool is easier said than done.
Jokic is the gold standard. The general nature of the game is not questionable. He has long been a mainstay of Denver’s offensive ensembles as well as a link and finisher. Cleaning the glass, Jokic hasn’t posted a usage rate below the 97th percentile since 2018. In the same breath, the Nuggets have been 13.5, 11.3 and 18.7 points better from the floor over the past three seasons. This year, they are +14, still good for the 92nd percentile. Jokic, in layman’s terms, is Denver.
Thematically, Jokic is Professor Dumbledore, and Şengün is the Harry Potter of the books and movies. For many people in and around the organization, Şengün, like Harry, represents hope. Ironically, Shengun was dressed as a claypot for Halloween. He lacked the Jokic-level command of Houston’s offense, but Şengün’s impact on that end of the floor was never in question. Even in the darkest days of the Rockets’ rebuild, their offense was always better with him on the court.
The third-year center averaged 19.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, making him the most-improved player all of them. Not surprisingly, the Rockets are plus-12.3 in Schengen minutes, good for the 88th percentile. He is also assisting on 31.4 percent of his teammates’ moves. Houston is now ranked seventh in offensive efficiency, none of which would be possible without Şengün.
“I think it’s a good thing they played through him a little bit,” Jokic said. “I think this will benefit the entire organization. He is an unselfish guy – he wants to play for the team. He wants to pass, when the ball is in his hands, the whole team is going to move. He played very well today.”
Denver regularly sought to get Şengün involved in screening actions and often used him to change Aaron Gordon’s physicality or throw off Houston’s defensive rhythm. But Shengun, who has made real progress on his side of the ball this season, did well to fight tooth and nail to stick with Jokic as much as possible. Even on occasions where Jokic gets a big advantage (which is ridiculous to write because he seems unstoppable), Şengün can clean it up or at least serve it up.
When the two stand side-by-side, Şengün looks much smaller than Jokic, but if you introduce his 7-foot wingspan into the equation, Şengün has all the tools to be a strong team defender. The Rockets no longer want to hang him close to the rim as a standby defender, preferring to have him occupy a more mobile role.
Quick handovers on the following possession were designed to test defensive resolve, but an underrated layup from Jalen Green allowed Şengün time to bounce back to Jokic and land on the wall. Sequences like these are becoming more common for Shengyun and Houston. Udoka said after the game that part of the game plan was to stick with Denver’s shooters and force Jokic to beat them one-on-one.
Offensive, Şengün grew. He didn’t quite match Jokic’s output, but he certainly wasn’t a slouch — 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal in 35 minutes (more underrated for his playmaking ability than last time). Similar to Jokic, Şengün can score in a variety of ways – nice shots and spins around the post, great hook and pressure shots and the occasional 3. But it’s his vision and connection that pushes Houston’s offense to the next level.
Fred VanVleet made an interesting note about the Rockets after the game knowing that Jokic will be higher than usual in Houston’s ball screens, meaning the pocket pass will be open for Shengyun and he will have the freedom to execute. His effective field goal percentage on shots under 10 feet is now up to 66 percent, which is a strong indicator of how he can help corners and take advantage of defenders.
But as mentioned earlier, Shengyun’s game and decision making sealed the deal. Late in the fourth, the Rockets went to their favorite pick-and-roll action again, with Jokic and the Nuggets figuring out how to defend. Once the ball found Shengyun’s hands, their congested defense knew their open shooters were ready to pull the trigger. Surprisingly, it was Green who turned to his former teammates and smiled after they poured in a clutch triple with Shengyun’s help.
“He’s a good player,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope told The Athletic. “From last year, he’s showing his word in what he’s doing in the game. But he’s good in the post, he can shoot, he can do everything.
“He makes his teammates better,” Malone added. Shengun has had a great season and it affects the game in many ways.
(Photo: Thomas Shea / USA Today)