Nikola Jokic overwhelms Pistons to overcome ghastly turnover numbers

DETROIT – The way Denver protected the basketball Tuesday night, you would’ve thought it was doused in motor oil.

Yet despite coughing the ball up 25 times, some in comical fashion, Nikola Jokic refused to let the Nuggets lose. Denver’s 110-105 win over the Pistons was a showcase game of his dominance, but not one for the Nuggets to cherish.

“It’s hard to beat your opponent while you’re beating yourself,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We got lucky tonight, we got away with it. And our defense was able to do that.”

Detroit scored 38 points off Denver’s turnovers, a number so ghastly it was somewhat of a surprise they held on even vs. the lowly Pistons. A showing like that in Wednesday’s back-to-back vs. Brooklyn, and the Nuggets won’t stand a chance.

Detroit’s No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham shredded the Nuggets for 34 points and six 3-pointers. The Pistons opened the fourth on an 11-2 run to make it a 99-96 game. Jokic, upon returning, buried a 3-pointer from the top of the arc in response.

He finished with 28 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists. That was all it took for the Nuggets to beat the Pistons in two games straight. Aaron Gordon added 16 points, five rebounds and five assists and Michigan native Monte Morris registered 12 points and eight rebounds.

The Nuggets improved to 25-21 on the season. Their 56-36 advantage on the glass was key.

The third quarter began with defensive promise, perhaps manifesting a message from the locker room. The Nuggets swarmed and swatted to build up a convincing 86-71 lead with 6:29 left in the third. But as tends to happen on a nightly basis, the Nuggets relented. Turnovers mounted as did transition lapses.

On one such occasion, Malone fumed while calling a timeout after his team failed to get back on defense. Two momentum-stunting 3-pointers from Zeke Nnaji helped rebut the run, but it wasn’t the knockout punch Denver was looking for. The Nuggets carried a surmountable 97-85 lead heading into the fourth.

It wasn’t until late in Sunday’s contest when the Nuggets finally secured their first win over Detroit. That was due, in large part, to a porous defense.

“That was my challenge to our players (Tuesday),” Malone said prior to the game. “We didn’t hand out a Defensive Player of the Game chain last game because no one deserved it.”

Malone implored his team to lock in defensively. He didn’t mind that DeMarcus Cousins, the team’s most recent addition, reinforced the message after the game.

“He’s heard it, and he understands,” Malone said. “DeMarcus is a vet … He also understands what it takes to win in the NBA. As do the rest of our players. All of our guys know that. These are definitely the dog days of the NBA season. I think a lot of teams, players, coaches, staff, media, I think everybody’s probably a little bit tired. It’s been a long grind. … We just can’t rely on the offense to carry the day.”

But it did again during the first half Tuesday and left Malone shaking his head entering the locker room at the break. The Nuggets held a 69-59 lead that was more a testament to their layered offense than anything they did defensively.

Jokic dissected Detroit’s defense for 19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in the first half. His imprints were everywhere. If he wasn’t drawing fouls, then he was swiping and deflecting passes on the other end. When Cousins went to the bench, Jokic sought him out and shared whatever wisdom he’d gleaned. His involvement was all-encompassing.

Gordon chipped in 12 points, including a pair of thundering jams, and Morris added eight.

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