Idols become rivals, Alperen Şengün vs. Nikola Jokić and the Rockets’ hot start

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HOUSTON — Some time after the final buzzer of the Rockets’ 107-104 win over the Nuggets had sounded, Nikola Jokić, still in uniform, sat motionless at his locker, his mammoth hands holding the boxscore.

Around him, teammates were in the process of decompressing from a tough, physical game — some dressing up, some already speaking to the media and others departing for the team buses. But Jokić remained in his seat, annoyed and dismayed. A few minutes later after conveying some of his postgame frustrations with a team official, Jokić crumpled the sheet of paper up with one hand and threw it away.

Jokić, the reigning champ who sits atop the NBA as the undisputed best player in the world, had just recorded a 36-point, 21-rebound, 11-assist stat line — a Herculean effort that would have ensured a win on most nights. It definitely would have been more than sufficient to defeat last year’s version of this team. But not tonight. Not against these Rockets. They are 6-3, winners of six straight after an 0-3 start and are now top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Things are a bit different now.

For most of the second half — and especially during the final minutes of the fourth quarter — Sunday night’s game didn’t feel like a November regular season game and definitely didn’t feel like just the ninth game of the season. Every possession mattered that much more, Nuggets coach Michael Malone scribbling furiously on his clipboard during timeouts and Rockets coach Ime Udoka walking onto the floor to give last-minute instructions. The deafening roars of Toyota Center made the walls shake down the stretch as Jokić and Alperen Şengün, two offensive beacons, dueled it out.

But just from the mood seen at both ends of the connecting hallway — the jovial Rockets high-fiving and dousing Jeff Green, former Nugget, with water outside the locker room — it was clear that for Houston, at least, these nights mean more than they have in a long, long time.

It gives us another feather in our cap,” Udoka said of the win. “Gives us experience of late-game execution, getting the shots we want and things were looking for, defending certain actions. It’s good to get those experiences in. We’ve practiced them, but to get them in the game is a different animal. Happy with how we finished.”

It was also quite apparent that the matchup with Jokić meant a lot to Şengün. When Rick Ross, award-winning rapper and producer, wrote the song “Idols Become Rivals,” he wasn’t referring to head-to-head battles between a two-time MVP and a third-year big man. But its premise, competing with someone you once looked up to, is an underlying theme that connects the two.

From the opening tip, Şengün wanted Jokić to feel his presence. During practice in the days prior, with the help of Green walking the team through Denver’s plays, everything came back to Jokić, the Nuggets’ central force. Of course, slowing him is a task easier said than done.

Jokić is the gold standard. The totality of his game is unquestionable. He has long been the base of Denver’s offensive sets as well as the connector and the finisher. Per Cleaning the Glass, Jokić hasn’t recorded a usage rate below 97 percent since 2018. In a similar breath, the Nuggets have been 13.5, 11.3 and 18.7 points better with him on the floor over the last three seasons. This year, they’re a +14, still good for the 92nd percentile. Jokić, in layman’s terms, is Denver.

More thematically, Jokić is Professor Dumbledore, and Şengün is Harry Potter, the titular wizard from the books and movies. For a lot of folks in and around the organization, Şengün, like Harry, represents hope. Ironically, Şengün dressed up as Potter for Halloween. He hasn’t had quite the Jokić-level command of Houston’s offense but Şengün’s impact on that end of the floor has never been in question. Even during the dark days of the Rockets rebuild, their offense was always better with him on the court.

The third-year center is averaging 19.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, looking all the part of an early candidate for Most Improved Player. By no surprise, the Rockets are a plus-12.3 in Şengün’s minutes, good for the 88th percentile. He’s also assisting on a whopping 31.4 percent of his teammates’ makes. Houston is now up to seventh in offensive efficiency, none of which is possible with Şengün’s presence.

“I think it’s a good thing that they’re playing a little bit more through him,” Jokić said. “I think that’s going to benefit the whole organization. He’s the guy who’s not selfish — he wants to play for the team. He wants to pass, the whole team is going to move when the ball is in his hands. He played really good today.”

Denver routinely wanted to get Şengün involved in screening actions and often used Aaron Gordon’s physicality to either force a switch or throw Houston’s defensive rhythm off. But Şengün, who has made real strides this season on that side of the ball, did well to fight tooth and nail to stick to Jokić for as long as possible. Even on the occasions when Jokić would have a bigger advantage (which is hilarious to write because he’s seemingly unstoppable), Şengün would be there to clean it up or at least offer his services.

When both are standing side by side, Şengün appears considerably smaller than Jokić but once you factor his 7-foot wingspan and standing reach into the equation, Şengün has all the tools to be a solid team defender. The Rockets don’t want to have him hang back close to the rim in drop defense anymore, they prefer to have him take on more of a mobile role.

Quick handoffs like the possession below are designed to test defensive resolve but an underrated stance from Jalen Green allows Şengün time to recover back to Jokić and wall him up. Sequences like these are becoming more and more common for Şengün and Houston. Udoka said after the game that part of the game plan was to stick to Denver’s shooters and force Jokić to beat them one-on-one.

Offensively, Şengün thrived. He didn’t quite match Jokić’s output but he was certainly no slouch — 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal in 35 minutes (an underrated plus because of his ability to play longer than in the past). Similar to Jokić, Şengün can score in several ways — nifty twirls and spins around the post, fancy hook and push shots and the occasional 3. But it’s his vision and his connectivity that pushes Houston’s offense to another level.

Fred VanVleet made an interesting note after the game about the Rockets knowing Jokić would be higher up than normal in Houston’s ball screens, meaning the pocket passes would be open for Şengün and he would have the freedom to implement. His effective field goal percentage on shots less than 10 feet is now up to 66 percent, a strong indicator of a player who understands angles and how to leverage them against defenders.

But as stated earlier, Şengün’s playmaking and decision-making down the stretch sealed the deal. Late in the fourth, the Rockets went to their favored pick-and-roll action again, knowing how Jokić and the Nuggets would defend it. Once the ball found Şengün’s hands, he knew their shrunken defense left open shooters ready to pull the trigger. Ironically, it was Green who could only turn and smile at his former teammates after draining a huge clutch triple courtesy of Şengün’s assist.

“He’s a great player,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope told The Athletic. “He’s showing the promise from last year as far as what he’s been doing with his game. But he’s great in the post, can shoot, can do it all around.”

Makes his teammates better,” Malone added. “Şengün is having a hell of a season and impacts the game in so many ways.”

(Photo: Thomas Shea / USA Today)

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