SACRAMENTO – Bones Hyland couldn’t help himself. As Nikola Jokic twirled into another improbable basket in the paint late in the second half, the Nuggets’ jubilant rookie stood up from his seat on Denver’s bench and let the nearby fans hear it.
Jokic, as he’s done the entire year but more specifically the last two games, hurled his team on his back and willed them to their fourth win in a row. The 106-100 result also gave the Nuggets a sterling 3-0 record on their current four-games-in-five-nights swing.
They’ll try for perfection on Thursday night, at home, against the Golden State Warriors.
Asked after the game what he’d say if he knew his team had a chance to go 4-0 over the daunting stretch, Michael Malone professed supreme confidence in his group.
“I’d believe it,” Malone said, citing their recent play.
Jokic, who was undeterred by the torrent of defensive schemes Sacramento threw at him, poured in 38 points, snatched 18 rebounds and dished seven assists. His timing and tenacity on the glass helped seal Wednesday’s result – Denver’s 12th win in its last 14 games.
Monte Morris canned three clutch buckets in the fourth quarter en route to 20 points of his own. The Kings didn’t have an answer for his mid-range proficiency.
Between Jokic and Morris, the Nuggets were able to overcome 20 turnovers, including 14 in the second half. Their interior dominance – 58 points in the paint in all – helped overcome the miscues as well.
“No disrespect to them, this game was closer than it should’ve been, in my opinion,” Malone said.
The Kings were down Domantas Sabonis due to suspension, but electric guard De’Aaron Fox sliced the Nuggets’ defense for 32 points and 10 assists.
The Nuggets were down two of their more dynamic players Wednesday in Will Barton (ankle) and Bones Hyland (knee). Though neither injury was believed to be serious, Denver sorely needed their shot creation on a night when Jokic didn’t get much assistance.
What once looked like a comfortable, double-digit lead over the Kings quickly dwindled as Denver’s turnovers mounted. Sloppy, careless passes coincided with easy missed buckets, and Sacramento outscored the Nuggets by nine in the third quarter.
Not even DeMarcus Cousins’ late 3-pointer – followed by a kiss to the crowd – sparked the Nuggets’ listless offense. The Kings flew around on defense, swatting Bryn Forbes twice on one possession, to force an 80-77 deficit heading into the fourth.
Malone was unconcerned that the Kings were missing their most formidable post player in Sabonis. What mattered, according to Malone, was maintaining their consistency on both ends of the floor.
“I don’t care if Sabonis is playing or not,” he said. “Can we continue to play at a high level regardless of the opponent?”
Over their last 13 games, the Nuggets’ defense ranks fourth in the NBA. Offensively, they rank seventh overall.
Sabonis’ absence also meant a greater emphasis on Fox, one of the more lethal transition players in the league.
“De’Aaron Fox is a one-man break,” Malone warned.
Fox got his, with 13 first-half points, but the Nuggets rode Jokic to a 63-51 halftime lead. Jokic abused Sacramento’s interior defenders, deking and feigning his way to 24 points over the first two quarters. His 10 rebounds and five assists also represented team-highs in the first half.
Jokic was uncharacteristically aggressive, perhaps eager to create an early buffer that might’ve meant less minutes overall.
Morris’ 11 points helped stabilize the offense from the backcourt without Barton or Hyland.