Exhausted and spent, the Nuggets didn’t have anything left.
Playing their fourth game in five nights, sloppy, uncharacteristic mistakes undermined what had been a resilient effort – for three quarters. After a stretch of three stunning games, Nikola Jokic had little energy remaining, and the Nuggets fell, 113-102, to the Warriors on Thursday night.
“I’m not one to make excuses,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who was unwilling to cite fatigue after the defeat. Instead, he cited turnovers and defensive miscommunications.
Even in the loss, Jokic managed 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
Steph Curry took advantage of the national TV spotlight. He erupted for 34 points, including 24 in the second half to snap Denver’s four-game winning streak. The Nuggets were up 102-100 with 3:10 left before going cold in crunch time.
“We were tired, man,” said Monte Morris.
Their 13 turnovers for 26 Warriors points were magnified as the offense ground to a halt. The tired legs of the past few days were evident in their 7-of-31 shooting from beyond the 3-point line.
Even still, Malone beamed when he considered his team’s 12-3 record in their past 15 games.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” he said.
Klay Thompson added 18 for Golden State, which knocked down 14 3-pointers on the night.
Bones Hyland paced Denver’s bench unit, accounting for 10 of their 37 points.
But the toll of the past few days appeared to catch up to the surging Nuggets.
A quality defensive half from Austin Rivers on Curry wasn’t going to last forever. Curry got loose for 18 in the third quarter alone to spearhead Golden State’s 37-point period. He drove hard and finished off the glass and then leaned more on his weapon of choice: his 3-pointer. After one devastating triple against Bryn Forbes, Curry danced on his way back up the court.
His burst coincided with Jokic’s fourth foul, which sent him to the bench early. But after a cold first half from 3-point range, the Nuggets hung around with 3-pointers from Morris, Aaron Gordon and Hyland. A late driving dunk from DeMarcus Cousins lit the crowd, as Denver headed to the final quarter down 88-84.
The Nuggets left Sacramento late Wednesday night before the quick turnaround.
“Got back around 3:00 in the morning, driving in the snow,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I think everybody in our travel party probably got to bed around 4:00-4:30 last night by the time you get home from the airport with the roads not being great. So, here we are.”
Bright eyed and bushy tailed?
“It is what it is, man,” Malone continued. “We can’t waste an ounce of energy complaining about four [games] in five [nights]. This is five in seven. It’s all true, but we have a game tonight at home, and we have to find a way to go out there and continue to play at the level we’ve been playing at. … We’ve found a way to beat this team three times this year. We know tonight will be the toughest game of the season.”
Despite tired legs and the grueling demands of the recent schedule, the Nuggets carried a 60-51 lead into halftime. Per usual, Jokic was at the heart of the lead. He bullied his interior matchup for 16 points, while nabbing 10 rebounds in 16 first-half minutes. As expected, Jokic pulled out a devilish array of post moves, including his patented slow-motion Euro step.
After the latter, Zeke Nnaji, Davon Reed and Hyland all re-enacted the move from Denver’s bench.
But while Curry and Thompson had 10 points each in the first half, the Nuggets maintained momentum due to their animated rookie. You couldn’t miss Hyland in the first half. If he wasn’t dancing on Warriors defender Jonathan Kuminga for a show-time layup, then he was hyping up the crowd ala Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
Hyland’s energy was infectious. He found JaMychal Green on consecutive rim-rattling dunks then went at Curry, undeterred by the status of his defender. Much like the Nuggets, Hyland was game for the primetime matchup.