Nuggets soar past Hawks behind Bones Hyland, Nikola Jokic

ATLANTA – For the first time in forever, Nikola Jokic wasn’t herculean. And for the first time in even longer, the Nuggets didn’t need him to be.

The Nuggets took down the Hawks, 133-115, winning in convincing fashion to start their latest three-game road trip. Friday’s was a collective effort, with six players reaching double figures scoring.

Jokic finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals, though foul trouble — perhaps fortuitously — limited him to just 26 minutes. After missing Wednesday’s loss due to a team violation, Bones Hyland sparked Denver’s second unit with a career-high 24 points. His slippery drives and 3-point shooting exposed Atlanta’s porous defense.

“I think every time Bones is available and plays, he does something positive,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who also praised the play of fellow guards Austin Rivers and Facu Campazzo.

Denver Nuggets guard Bones Hyland (3) ...
John Bazemore, The Associated Press

Denver Nuggets guard Bones Hyland (3) reacts after a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Atlanta.

Trae Young paced the Hawks with 34 points despite Aaron Gordon’s best defensive efforts.

Now 15-14 on the season, the Nuggets’ next stop comes Sunday at Brooklyn, a team whose depth has been ravaged by COVID-19 health and safety protocols recently.

On the same day Bol Bol and Michael Porter Jr. returned to the health and safety protocols, Rivers came back for his first game in nearly three weeks after his COVID case. Rivers made a noticeable impact even though he wasn’t close to game shape. Rivers poured in 11 points off the bench, part of the 51 the Nuggets got from their reserves.

“Just being able to honestly just reflect and watch myself on Synergy, just watch my clips this whole year,” Rivers said of his time off. “And just realize, I haven’t really been the player that I know I can be. I haven’t been myself this entire season, to be quite honest.”

The Nuggets’ 35 assists were also an indication of the shared workload.

When Jokic checked out barely a minute into the third quarter with his fourth foul, the Nuggets held a commanding 75-54 lead. In came Hyland, whose first-half outburst carried Denver’s bench. During that first half, Hyland buried two audacious 3s from Young territory – well beyond the 3-point line.

But as Young threatened to chip away at Denver’s sizable lead in the third, Monte Morris, Jeff Green and Gordon all connected on timely mid-range looks to weather the storm. Engaged from the bench, both Jokic and Jamal Murray stood up to applaud multiple times at their teammates’ effort. The Nuggets carried a 106-87 lead into the fourth.

“We were able to stay the course with Nikola on the bench, which is always a guessing game,” Malone said.

Even with everything the Nuggets were dealing with, from debilitating injuries to unfortunate COVID cases, Malone swore his team was handling it well.

“I think we’re in a good place, to be very honest,” Malone said. “There is a lot going on. You look at not just the injuries with Jamal, Michael, P.J., now Markus, who are long-term injuries. You have guys out with COVID. Then you throw in the fact that, OK, we’re 14-14, a third of the way through the season, but I think overall, we’re in a good place mentally.”

Malone acknowledged the toll had gotten heavy but not overwhelming.

“We were on a two-week road trip that felt like an eternity, then you come home, then you go right back on the road,” he said. “These are trying times but I never feel it’s too much, it’s too heavy. It’s been a challenge for all of us. … It has not been easy. I think by the culture that we have, the group that we have, the continuity that we have, have allowed us to lean on each other and help each other get through it, because that’s all you have is the man next to you.”

The Nuggets authored a superlative opening half, with swarming defense and bristling, unselfish offense. With 18 assists on 27 first-half field goals, Denver carried a 72-54 lead into the break. Young, hounded by Gordon, only managed 11 points in the first half.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) ...
John Bazemore, The Associated Press

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) goes past Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Atlanta.

Gordon’s gliding block on a Young layup attempt late in the second quarter got Denver’s entire bench up. They went just as wild for a Campazzo nutmeg assist.

Led by Jokic, who had 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals in the first half, the Nuggets’ offense soared. On the break, in the paint, from the perimeter, Denver fired on all cylinders.

It even got a massive boost from its reserves, which outscored Atlanta’s 30-16 over the first two quarters.

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