Bulls slam Nuggets despite Nikola Jokic’s third triple-double of the year

CHICAGO – As Zach LaVine elevated, the buzz from Bulls fans grew in anticipation.

Nikola Jokic’s sloppy fourth-quarter turnover sullied his third triple-double of the season and gave the United Center one more reason to roar. LaVine threw it down, and the pain kept coming for the Nuggets, who fell 109-97 to the resurgent Bulls on Monday night.

With barely six minutes remaining in the fourth, Lonzo Ball smashed home an alley-oop that came less than a minute after LaVine’s jam.

“I don’t have a game-plan for transition,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We can talk about defending a play, pick-and-roll, catch-and-shoot, post … transition is effort. Transition is pride.”

Even though Jokic finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 15 assists – passing Larry Bird for the eighth-most triple-doubles in NBA history – the Nuggets were cooked and Jokic, himself, wasn’t satisfied.

“I need to score, especially just to put pressure, scoring-wise,” Jokic said. “… I think I actually missed a couple easy ones.”

They fell to 11-12 on the season and will head to New Orleans for their fifth of seven consecutive road games.

Aaron Gordon (18 points) could do nothing to quell LaVine, who poured in a game-high 32 points. Will Barton added 19 for the Nuggets, but on just 8-of-20 shooting from the field.

Chicago finished with a 44-28 edge in points in the paint. The aforementioned slams felt like they were worth more.

The Bulls found out less than three hours before tip-off that they’d be without star guard DeMar DeRozan due to health and safety protocols. Malone was adamant that didn’t matter. He maintained that the Bulls — with LaVine and Ball — had ample firepower from their backcourt.

He was right.

The Nuggets stammered out of halftime in much the same way they’d struggled against the Magic and the Knicks to open recent third quarters. Poor offensive sets, rife with ugly turnovers, kick-started a quick 7-0 run for the Bulls.

“My disappointment in the loss tonight is more the way we came out to start that third quarter, again,” Malone said. “I just asked our starters. I said, ‘What do you want me to do differently at halftime? I’ll do it. Want me to sing, want me to dance, want me to do something? I’ll do it.”

Jokic responded with the Nuggets reeling. He served up consecutive layups to Jeff Green and Barton, then ripped a steal for an easy layup of his own. Around Jokic, the offense flowed seamlessly and gave them a chance to withstand LaVine’s offensive theatrics. But when Jokic went to the bench, the Nuggets down 67-66 with 2:29 left, the wheels came off.

LaVine made three consecutive buckets, with each finish ramping up the volume in the United Center. He was only offset, slightly, by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Gordon. The Bulls carried all the momentum and a 77-71 lead into the fourth quarter

When these two teams met roughly three weeks ago, the Nuggets didn’t have the luxury of their MVP center, who was out due to a wrist sprain. But a healthy Jokic changes everything for the Nuggets’ future prospects.

“Nikola is the anchor of our defense,” Malone said prior to the game. “The defensive numbers bear that out. When he’s on the floor, we have an elite level defense. Offensively, obviously, everything we do we play through him.”

The Bulls tried to slow Jokic with double-teams, but he picked apart their defensive scheme in the first half on Monday. Denver carried a 49-46 lead into the break thanks largely to his well-rounded production and an unselfish streak from the rest of the roster. The Nuggets assisted on 15 of 17 field goals over the first two quarters.

Jokic entered halftime with seven points, seven assists and nine rebounds.

On multiple occasions, he broke through the defense by whipping passes one or two rotations ahead. The Nuggets took advantage of their newfound space, draining 8 of 19 3-pointers in the first half.

But when he sat, unsurprisingly, Denver’s offense ground to a halt. Outside of Barton, who had 13 first-half points and benefitted from a second-unit stagger, the Nuggets’ reserves had little offensive creation.

Ball and LaVine kept the Bulls within reach with 14 points each in the first half.

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