Nikola Jokic jumped like he was practicing for the All-Star dunk contest.
Instead, his aerial acrobatics stuffed OG Anunoby at the rim, swatting the potential game-winning bucket and snapping the Raptors’ winning streak at eight. The Nuggets survived, 110-109, on Saturday night, seizing one of their best wins of the season after reaching Canada late Friday night.
Jokic’s game-winning block helped atone for two missed free throws with 12 seconds left that would’ve given the Nuggets some breathing room.
“It was just a good block, the timing, probably,” Jokic said, nonchalantly. “He didn’t have time, so he needed to throw it up.”
As it was, Jokic finished with 28 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and two blocks, the last of which sealed Denver’s dramatic win.
The timing of it made it one of the cleanest blocks of Jokic’s career.
After the game, there was no question who had earned the Defensive Player of the Game chain.
“The cheers were not for him winning it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The cheers were for him taking it. So as I walked into the locker room with it, even before I could announce who won it, he went over and just said, ‘I’ll take this,’ and he put it on, and the locker room went crazy.”
The Nuggets improved to 31-25 on the season and 16-15 on the road. They’ll head home after a quick two-game jaunt with Orlando waiting on Monday.
Bones Hyland, making his second start in as many games, was clutch as well. He finished with 11 points, four rebounds and four assists, including a massive 3-pointer off a Jokic assist with 2:16 remaining.
A few possessions later, Raptors All-Star Fred VanVleet buried a kiss-the-sky 3-pointer that cut Denver’s lead to one. It was as close as the Raptors would get before Jokic rejected Anunoby’s put-back attempt with less than a second left.
Jeff Green added 19 to help offset Toronto forward Pascal Siakam, who poured in a game-high 35. VanVleet added 25 and six 3-pointers.
The Raptors opened the third by playing to their strengths. They pounded the ball inside, exposed Denver’s interior defense and hit the offensive glass hard. Between Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, the Nuggets had a difficult time staying in front of all three versatile wings. And after softening up Denver inside, VanVleet hurt them from the perimeter with a couple 3-pointers.
Down 77-70 with 4:41 left in the third, the Nuggets made their run. Backup guard Facu Campazzo was at the heart of it. With hustle and heart, Campazzo facilitated on several baskets and buried a 3-pointer of his own. The Nuggets clawed back and entered the fourth down just 86-83.
One saving grace of facing Boston on Friday night, according to Malone, was that the film from that loss was applicable to the Raptors.
“They’re long, they’re rangy, they’re athletic, they’re versatile,” Malone said of Toronto’s defense, which was filled with wings that tend to fly around, switch and create havoc on opposing offenses.
Case in point, the Nuggets had 11 first-half turnovers vs. the Raptors, which translated to 14 points over the first two quarters. Still, Denver entered halftime down just 57-56.
That was, in no small part, because of Jokic. The reigning MVP imposed himself upon the Raptors’ bevy of big men, pouring in 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the first half. Against their smaller frontline, he snatched seven rebounds, including four on the offensive glass.
At one point late in the first quarter, Jokic had 18 points to the Raptors’ 20. His all-encompassing dominance gave the Nuggets a chance on the road.
Most importantly, under less-than-ideal circumstances after arriving in Toronto late Friday night, he injected life into his squad.
“I know this is a back-to-back,” Malone said before the game. “… It’s up to us to somehow, someway, bring our own energy.”
Jeff Green was a surprising source of offense with 11 in the first half. He, like Jokic, took advantage of the Raptors’ lack of size. And for the second consecutive game, Hyland played like he knew he belonged. His two first-half 3-pointers helped balance Jokic’s interior power.