Nikola Jokic checked into the fourth quarter Sunday night earlier than he almost ever does. The Nuggets needed every second of their MVP savior.
Jokic hoisted his team on his broad shoulders and survived with a gripping 103-100 road win against the Clippers. The Nuggets snapped their two-game losing streak and improved to 16-16 on the season with a two-game set against the Warriors beginning on Tuesday.
“It was a little bit of an adventure there at the end, but we did enough to pull out the win,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We needed this one.”
Jokic was sublime. He played the final 10:34 of the fourth quarter, finishing with 26 points, 22 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and two steals. It was his second consecutive 20-20 game.
Davon Reed, on his second 10-day contract with the Nuggets, had 15 points and three 3-pointers off the bench. His defense on the final sequence, contesting a 3-pointer from Brandon Boston on the wing, sealed the win.
“Man, just don’t get scored on,” Reed said. “Get the win. It was the only thing going through my mind.”
The victory eased the sting from their Charlotte meltdown earlier this week.
“I know I wasn’t very much fun to be around (over Christmas),” Malone joked. “I apologized to my wife and my daughters and my dogs because I was kind of a scrooge.”
The Nuggets held a 17-point lead with 7:45 left in the third quarter and appeared well on their way to a convincing road win. Monte Morris found a rhythm with his jumper, and Jokic continued to impose himself inside. Then the same bad habits — the turnovers, the shot selection — cropped up once again.
The Clippers reeled off a 26-5 run to close the third quarter. On many occasions, the mistakes were self-inflicted, with little ball movement on offense and no resistance on defense. The Clippers, brewing with momentum, carried an 83-79 lead into the fourth.
Not that the Nuggets ever rely on excuses, but Aaron Gordon’s absence due to a hamstring injury only dug deeper into their depth.
Malone said he checked his phone prior to Sunday’s game and caught a quick glimpse of the rising COVID cases throughout the league.
“It’s almost becoming a sense of normalcy with what we’re dealing with, which is scary,” he said. “… This is getting really crazy, and it’s not going away.”
The Nuggets were still smarting a few days later after seeing their 17-point fourth-quarter lead dissolve against Charlotte last Thursday.
“We had one assist in the fourth quarter,” Malone said. “The ball stopped moving. We became a dribble-happy team, an isolation team, a one-on-one team. That’s not who we are. That affected our defense. … It was just a collapse, obviously, and the blame should really be put on my shoulders as the head coach.”
To his delight, the Nuggets played unselfish, organic basketball in the first half vs. the Clippers. Their 64-55 halftime lead was a product of balanced offense — three players reached double figures — and a superlative effort from Denver’s second unit.
Jokic paced the starters with 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists over the first two quarters, but the Nuggets’ reserves expanded the lead to 12 at one point. Led by 13 points from Reed, the Nuggets’ bench poured in 30 points in the first half. If it wasn’t Reed’s shooting, then it was Bones Hyland or Facu Campazzo causing havoc in the lane. All told, the Nuggets served up 18 assists in the first half, discombobulating the Clippers with their speed and pace.