Michael Malone blew a gasket and missed the end of a classic. Nikola Jokic picked him up anyway.
Jokic saved 30 of his 46 points for the fourth quarter and overtime, pummeling and bruising the Pelicans’ beleaguered defense. His clutch 3-pointer with 1:30 left in overtime all-but sealed the jaw-dropping performance, and his overwhelming dominance carried the Nuggets to a gripping, 138-130, overtime win on Sunday night.
Malone, who watched the end of the game with Nuggets president Tim Connelly, said Jokic wasn’t any different in the jubilant postgame locker room.
“Calm,” Malone said. “Like a cold-blooded killer, man.”
Monte Morris drained a crucial 3-pointer in the extra session, and Aaron Gordon topped off his 28-point performance with a late layup, but this was Jokic’s masterpiece. He won it for them, again, making the case he’s the best player in the NBA, again.
“I was making shots, I was aggressive,” said Jokic in his typical nonchalant manner. “It was a really good period.”
Down 11 with 3:22 left in the fourth quarter, Jokic seemed to get stronger as his minutes mounted and the game dragged on. He finished the night with 46 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in 43 minutes. He missed the last game due to a non-COVID-related illness and returned to author his league-leading 17th triple-double.
“What a luxury it is to have the MVP in an overtime game,” Malone said.
A fourth-quarter ankle sprain to Will Barton kept him out for the remainder of the game. That didn’t stop Jokic, who dragged the Nuggets to their 10th win in their last 12 games. Now 38-26, they’ll face the Warriors on Monday at Ball Arena.
Gordon tried to intervene before Malone’s third-quarter ejection but his coach was livid at a travel call and let the officials know it. David Adelman served as the acting head coach and steered the Nuggets to the dramatic win.
Malone said he apologized to the team postgame for not controlling his emotions better. It’s a lesson he’s begged his players to follow, too.
Brandon Ingram carried the Pelicans with 38 points, and long-time Nuggets foe C.J. McCollum added 24. But Jokic was unstoppable.
Denver’s once-commanding, first-half lead shriveled under difficult shot-making from Ingram and big man Jonas Valanciunas. That it coincided with a dry spell from the Nuggets’ 3-point shooters only expedited the process.
It wasn’t until Gordon became assertive in the third quarter that the tenor of the game changed. Gordon attacked the paint and the rim, erupting for two dunks that engaged the crowd and Denver’s bench. His physical block on Valanciunas helped protect the lead on the other end, too.
With 13 points in the quarter alone, Gordon’s energy kept the Nuggets in it. But irate at the travel call, Malone picked up one technical foul, then earned another soon after for arguing. Malone, whose team trailed 94-84 entering the fourth, might’ve been trying to spark his squad.
Denver’s head coach acknowledged the Pelicans had taken on a different look since trading for McCollum, but attributing all their recent success solely to his addition would’ve been selling them short, he said.
“I told our players, and I put the scores up there,” Malone said. “It’s not just 4-0 (in their last four games). It’s 4-0 and they’re winning by 30 points a night. Their defense has been outstanding.”
But the addition of McCollum has galvanized an already-talented group.
As for the Nuggets, who’ve found a rhythm themselves the last few weeks, Malone said he wasn’t ready to begin trimming down the rotation with an eye toward the postseason.
“I kind of like how we’re playing and who we’re playing, at the moment,” he said prior to the game.
The Nuggets held a 62-57 lead at the break made thinner by Ingram’s preposterous halfcourt heave to end the second quarter. Once down 21 points, the Pelicans surged for 38 points in the second quarter to keep it competitive. Ingram’s shot-making was devastating as was McCollum, who peppered the mid-range for 15 first-half points.
Jokic led the Nuggets with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. He, Barton and Bones Hyland all drained two 3-pointers to keep the offense cooking. Barton, who now holds the franchise’s all-time 3-point record, made two quick ones knowing Jamal Murray — once he returns — is coming for him.
Hyland set JaMychal Green up on several occasions that ended in easy dunks. Their shared play helped pace Denver’s reserves in the early going.