Nuggets fans undoubtedly will be chanting "MVP! MVP!" when Nikola Jokic is on the court Friday night. For the first time in a while, there will be a player present who is more deserving of those chants from the Denver crowd.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden, the reigning league MVP, has exploded over the past few weeks and has staked his claim to retain the honor. Harden has scored 32 or more points in 24 consecutive games ahead of Houston's visit to Denver on Friday. He put his team on his back when guard Chris Paul was out, and he carried the Rockets back into the thick of the playoff race.
Harden is averaging 36.3 points per game this season, and five times he has dropped 50 or more, including the 61 he scored at Madison Square Garden last week.
In a Tuesday loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, Harden finished with 37 points.
"I wish I could have a quiet 35," Rockets guard Gerald Green said recently, according to the Houston Chronicle. "It's kind of weird to not see him score 45 or 50. I'm so used to seeing him score 58 any time now."
Harden has helped the Rockets break out of an early-season malaise, but he can't get them back to the Western Conference finals on his own. Paul's return from a hamstring injury that cost him a month will help, as does the energy of just acquired Kenneth Faried.
In five games since coming over from Brooklyn, where he was used sparingly, Faried is averaging 15.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. He has posted double-doubles in each of the past three games.
"(Faried's) played a long time and knows how to play the pick-and-roll," Paul told the Houston Chronicle. "He's super athletic. All I have to do is get him the ball and get him in the right place."
Faried was a fan favorite when he was with Denver for the first seven seasons of his career. Now, after the Nuggets traded him to the Nets last summer, he has a chance to get a measure of payback. It won't be easy for him or the Rockets. Denver is off to its best 50-game start in its NBA history and is coming off two dramatic road wins.
The Nuggets pulled out a 95-92 win in Memphis on Monday after trailing by 25 in the second half, then held off New Orleans 105-99 on Wednesday night. Denver has won four straight, the past three without second-leading scorer Jamal Murray, who will be unavailable again Friday due to a sprained left ankle.
In Murray's absence, Jokic has carried the Nuggets to wins. He hit the go-ahead bucket in the final minute over Marc Gasol on Monday and then had his eighth triple-double of the season Wednesday night.
Jokic was selected a first-time All-Star on Thursday.
"Everybody knows where the ball is going, and Nikola Jokic is our closer -- and that's what you want from your franchise player, your All-Star, your MVP, whatever you want to call him -- down the stretch, give him the ball and let him make plays," Denver coach Michael Malone said after the Wednesday game. "He wants it. He has the confidence and he's been delivering, which is the best thing about it."
Jokic will have to be at his best against the Rockets, who have won nine straight against Denver, including two this season.
--Field Level Media
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