MIAMI – The retaliation never came. Instead, boos were all Heat nation could muster.
Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic made his triumphant return from a wrist sprain Monday night and systematically sliced the Miami Heat to shreds. Miami’s Public Enemy No. 1 dissected the Heat defense en route to a streak-snapping 120-111 win.
“This whole team is built around Nikola,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s the focal point and centerpiece of our offense, and the same can be said for our defense.”
To no one’s surprise, Jokic’s return following a four-game absence coincided with the end of Denver’s six-game losing streak. If the Nuggets were a boiling kettle of misery, Jokic was the release valve. He diced the Heat for 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
Everything the Nuggets did — surge from the 3-point line, defend with urgency — was made easier just by his mere presence. The Nuggets blistered from outside with 18 3-pointers and defended like it mattered. Bones Hyland, who returned from an ankle sprain, poured in 19 points and drilled five 3-pointers off the bench. Aaron Gordon added 20 points and five assists, sporting a similar hairstyle as Hyland.
“I took my hair out, and I think we were at practice or something, and I saw (Gordon) had his hair out,” Hyland said. “So I’m like, ‘OK, now we’re back in business. … The Fro Bros.”
Miami, down key guards Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, struggled to establish any offensive consistency all game, but Bam Adebayo (24 points) and Kyle Lowry (17 points, 14 assists) did what they could.
It was only three weeks ago that Jokic leveled Heat enforcer Markieff Morris in response to a hard foul, costing Jokic a one-game suspension. Morris (neck) hasn’t played since the Nov. 8 incident.
Every time he touched the ball, Heat fans showered him with boos. That was about all Miami could do to mitigate the MVP’s powers. With brothers Nemanja and Strahinja sitting in the row behind Denver’s bench, the youngest Jokic torched the Heat.
Malone didn’t find the sibling storyline pertinent at all, noting that the Jokic brothers had always come to South Beach for their brother’s games.
“When the schedule comes out, who doesn’t come to Miami?” Malone said.
Brothers Jokic had plenty to celebrate.
On the same day news broke that Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. would undergo a third back surgery, Denver got the win it sorely needed to start their seven-game road trip. Now 10-10, they’ll head to Orlando, finally with positive momentum.
Dispiriting injury news aside, Malone wasn’t going to let their depth affect their attitude.
“This is not the way we planned this season to go, but you can’t control these things,” Malone said prior to the game. “It’s all about how you respond to that, and one thing I know about our group, we’ve always responded well. … Stay with it, knowing that the only way we’re going to get out of this is by staying together, by staying positive.”
Within that, Malone said the worst part for Jokic was to watch his teammates struggle without him.
“I think what’s hurting him more is to see us out here not playing to maybe the best of our ability but more importantly, losing games,” Malone said. “I think that’s what eating at all of our guys. We’re not used to six-game losing streaks. And that’s a good thing.”
The Nuggets pasted the Heat in the first half with a swarming defense and a buzzing offense. Their efforts yielded a 63-43 lead that felt even larger than it was.
With Jokic conducting the attack, the Nuggets shot nearly 63% from the field. His individual 17-point, nine-rebound half felt almost effortless. On numerous occasions, Jokic felt little-to-no resistance inside, which explained how he was able to rack up his baskets on only eight first-half attempts.
Defensively, the Nuggets closed out hard — Miami shot just 6 of 25 from 3-point range over the first two quarters — and played crisp, connected defense.
Hyland’s 13-point first half only buoyed the defensive intensity.