Nuggets miss chance at clinching playoff spot despite Nikola Jokic’s 41 points

Nikola Jokic clasped his hands and looked skyward, wistfully frustrated at what could’ve been.

The Nuggets blew a chance to clinch a playoff spot, falling in convincing fashion, 116-97, to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night. While the Nuggets were scrambling to make their own game competitive, Washington sealed its win over Minnesota, which represented the first part of the equation for Denver to solidify a top-six seed in the postseason.

But turnovers, missed dunks and only one quarter of quality defense ensured the Nuggets couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Now 47-33, they’ll get another chance to clinch a playoff spot Thursday vs. Memphis.

“We wasted a golden opportunity,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, citing his team’s lack of desperation.

A fourth quarter filled with ill-timed mistakes and a cold streak from the 3-point line ruined the night. Despite 41 points from Jokic on 18-of-35 shooting and 17 rebounds, the help wasn’t there. Only Aaron Gordon (18 points) reached double-figures with Jokic.

In contrast, San Antonio enjoyed six scorers in double digits and benefitted from 12-of-26 from the 3-point line. The Spurs also got 45 points from their bench, while Denver managed only 17.

“Our bench unit was … they played this game like it was a game in the middle of November,” Malone said.

The Nuggets took a hacksaw to San Antonio’s 20-point halftime lead. They remedied everything they’d failed to do in the first two quarters by playing smarter, harder and faster. Austin Rivers wrested a steal away from Jakob Poeltl and Gordon swatted Zach Collins’ attempt. As the defense ratcheted up, the offense took off.

Denver attacked downhill, hit the offensive glass and seized whatever momentum San Antonio had built. Jokic had 13 in the quarter to spearhead the run and Gordon added eight. Will Barton punctuated the 35-21 quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers to send the Spurs into a frenzied timeout. Barton bounced on the court, arms extended, as the crowd roared in appreciation. The Nuggets trailed just 85-79 heading into the fourth quarter.

Injured Nuggets Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Vlatko Cancar all sat next to each other on the bench, relishing the run. None of the aforementioned players have been ruled out for the season, and optimism still persists that Murray could return soon.

Bryn Forbes returned to the rotation after missing the last two games. Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he needed to help Forbes get back into rhythm with the playoffs around the corner.

Even though the Nuggets had won four of five games entering Tuesday, Malone admitted there was still plenty to clean up of their recent play.

“The turnovers have been something that have plagued us throughout the season,” Malone said. “Just giving up way too many points per game off of our mistakes. … The second thing would be trying to defend our paint a lot better. We have a porous paint defense at times.

“… The last part of it is, all year long, we’re the number one defensive rebounding team in the league, let’s get back to that,” Malone said. “We’ve really taken a significant dip in that area as of late. … So, those would be the things where if we could really focus on those three areas, I think that would allow us to be a team that’s not just barely beating some teams, or almost giving games away.”

The Nuggets gave away the first half, falling short in every category Malone had mentioned. The Spurs built a 64-44 halftime lead thanks to a lethargic, lackadaisical effort from the Nuggets. San Antonio racked up 32 points in the paint, managed nine second-chance points and converted six Denver turnovers into nine points.

The frustration was enough for Malone to pick up a technical foul arguing on Jokic’s behalf and for Jokic to pick up one himself. Outside of Denver’s franchise center, who poured in 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting in the first half, there weren’t any other consistent sources of offense. Jokic feasted on the Spurs’ thin frontcourt, dizzying Collins and Poeltl with his deep bag of spin moves.

But Denver’s errant 3-point shooting and leaky defense undermined the MVP’s assertive effort.

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