SAN ANTONIO – At the end of a grueling, seven-game road trip, Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave his guys a break.
He canceled shootaround Saturday morning in an effort to preserve his players’ legs. The ploy worked, as the Nuggets blistered the nets, pummeled the Spurs and ended their odyssey on a high note.
The 127-112 win sealed a 4-3 finish on their six-city pilgrimage. It was as physically taxing a trip as the Nuggets will take all season. Their reward? Another game Monday, this time at home, against Washington.
“I know it may sound strange for most people, but there’s a huge difference going home 4-3 on our road trip as opposed to 3-4,” Malone said. “… I’m proud of our group for finishing up the way we did.”
Nikola Jokic, perhaps irritated by two technical fouls (one of which was officially deemed non-unsportsmanlike), was sublime. But after two weeks away from home, he was also eager to see his new daughter.
“I know she grows,” he said. “Hopefully she’s gonna remember me.”
He scored 18 of his 35 points in the third quarter alone on a dizzying array of finishes inside and out. On one, a dunk less than three minutes into the quarter, he pulled himself up for a chin-up when he was whistled for the non-unsportsmanlike technical.
Jokic, thinking he’d be ejected, stood with his arms raised in disbelief.
“I overexaggerated,” Jokic said of what he was told by officials.
The slam came amid a massive 24-1 run, which spanned the end of the second quarter and ran into the third. It also nearly ended the game. Yet later in the fourth, as the lead dwindled to 110-93 with 5:56 left in the game, Malone had no choice but to put Jokic back in.
In addition to the scoring, Jokic added 17 rebounds and eight assists within his own personal onslaught.
Paced by a huge showing from guards Markus Howard and Bones Hyland, the Nuggets knocked down 20 3-pointers. Even though most of their damage came in the first half, it was a huge relief to have their supplementary scoring.
During Howard’s first-half outburst, the Nuggets searched for their two-way gunner on numerous dribble-handoffs. He finished the night with 21 points and six 3-pointers, and Hyland logged 16 points and four triples.
Both showings were vital without Will Barton, who missed Saturday’s game due to a non-COVID illness. Recent 10-day signee Davon Reed earned the start in Barton’s absence.
Before the game, Malone said every team in the NBA has tried to emulate the Spurs’ success.
“The thing that stood out always when you thought about the Spurs wasn’t them winning a championship – obviously it was multiple championships, and it was 20 years of playoffs – it was that sustained success that everybody aspires to,” he said. “No one is just satisfied with having a great season. It’s, let’s put a couple of decades together. … Whether it’s a team that is a championship-caliber team or a young team that is trying to develop as they are right now, they just always play the right way.”
While any team would be hard-pressed to duplicate what Gregg Popovich has done in San Antonio, at least Malone and the Nuggets have a compass and a guiding light in Jokic.
Denver’s generational superstar propelled a dominant first half with 17 points and nine rebounds as the Nuggets bolted to a 72-56 halftime lead. As a team, the Nuggets knocked down 13 of 25 first-half 3-pointers.
And their effort on the glass, which submarined their chances Thursday night, was significantly better.
Asked before the game how high rebounding was on the priority list, Malone answered the question with a question.
“Is there a number before one?” he joked.
The story of the first half, though, was Denver’s bench unit. The much-maligned reserves poured in 31 points, most of which came via Howard and Hyland. The two diminutive guards rained in eight combined 3-pointers, providing an unexpected boost on offense.