BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Austin Rivers skipped like he was back in Portland dashing the Blazers’ playoff hopes.
His scorching performance Wednesday night against the Nets invoked his stunning scoring binge last spring. Only this time, instead of the playoffs, it came on the second-night of a back-to-back when the Nuggets were searching for a flame.
Rivers poured in 25 points, including 22 in the second half, pacing the Nuggets to a 124-118 win over the Nets.
“I really feel like I can do this consistently,” Rivers said. “… It’s always fun, playing in N.Y., too. So the crowd’s yelling all type of crazy stuff. I couldn’t even tell you some of the things that some of them yelled at me tonight. … I think it’s funny.”
Nikola Jokic, while excellent, wasn’t the indomitable force he’s capable of being.
The victory, which also stretched their winning streak to three, took 20-point contributions up and down the roster. Jokic poured in 26 points, along with 10 rebounds and eight assists, and Will Barton did 21 points worth of damage to pair with his 10 rebounds.
“I wouldn’t say fun,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone joked when asked about the nature of their wins. “I haven’t felt fun in a long time. But it’s rewarding. We haven’t played maybe perfect basketball, but we’re winning games. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.”
It was the Nuggets’ eighth win in their last 11 games.
But Rivers, his irrational confidence and his seven 3-pointers were the X-factor.
Even without James Harden, Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, the Nets clawed to keep it competitive. Led by veterans LaMarcus Aldridge (18 points) and Patty Mills (21), Brooklyn was within one possession as late as the 3:30 mark of the fourth quarter.
DeMarcus Cousins’ fourth-quarter ejection forced Jokic back into the game earlier than anticipated. Cousins had 13 points and six rebounds before picking up two quick technical fouls late in the third and early in the fourth.
The Nuggets improved to 26-21 on the season, with another road game Friday at the Pelicans.
Down 70-58 with 10:50 left in the third quarter, the Nuggets couldn’t gain a foothold against the scrappy Nets. It wasn’t until a Jokic-fueled 12-3 run that the Nuggets carved into Brooklyn’s lead.
Jokic and Barton took turns ringing up the Nets. First they buried back-to-back 3-pointers, then Jokic picked apart the defense with his trademark vision. On one helper, he whipped a pass to former Net Jeff Green for an easy jam. Later, he set up Rivers for one of his three third-quarter 3-pointers. With a commanding 42-26 quarter, the Nuggets wrested momentum and carried a 96-91 lead into the fourth.
Tuesday night, Jokic became the first player in NBA history to reach at least 5,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists within his first 500 games in the league.
That type of production has fostered unwavering trust between player and coach.
“Having worked with him for seven years, the relationship on and off the court, how close we are, how we read each other,” Malone said before tipoff.
“I’ve told him plenty of times, I want him to be even more vocal,” Malone said. “‘What do you see out there because you’re out there being guarded, and double-teamed and triple-teamed. You feel the defense.’ So his input is invaluable. His call on the floor will trump any of my calls because he’s out there and he’s shown time and time again that he’s trustworthy.”
The Nuggets, on the other hand, might not be. Facing a team without most of its foundation, Denver played down to its competition in the first half. The Nets carried a 65-54 lead into the break with big showings from Aldridge and rookie Cam Thomas. On multiple occasions, Brooklyn’s ball handlers coasted to the rim with ease en route to 26 points in the paint.
Jokic was uncharacteristically passive, with only six shots in the first half. Barton carried the starters with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists, while Cousins anchored the reserves.
His 11 first-half points helped stabilize Brooklyn’s momentum. The veteran even knocked in two 3-pointers, which elicited standing ovations from Jokic on each occasion.