Nikola Jokic got the message, but the Nuggets couldn’t capitalize.
One game after Jokic faced criticism for taking just one shot against Memphis, his 37-point, 21-rebound performance wasn’t enough to hold off the feisty Brooklyn Nets on Friday night. The Nets, thanks to a Caris LeVert floater with 0.3 seconds remaining, hung on 112-110. The Nuggets fell to 9-3 on the season and 6-1 at the Pepsi Center.
Following a turbulent two days for Jokic, his performance was worthy of a win. The Nuggets’ 3-point shooting (5 for 18) and free throw shooting (25 for 34) held them back.
The Nuggets held a 110-106 lead with just over a minute left on the strength of a Paul Millsap dunk and an incredible two-way play from Jokic, who blocked Jarrett Allen and kick-started a fastbreak that ended in a fancy no-look dish to Malik Beasley for a layup.
But the Nets wouldn’t go away.
Gary Harris struggled from the field with just 1 for 11 shooting, but found ways to contribute elsewhere. He drove, absorbed two defenders and found Mason Plumlee for a dunk midway through the fourth. Soon after he kicked it to Beasley for a corner 3-pointer that gave the Nuggets a 92-89 lead.
Unlike in recent wins, it was mostly the starters who hacked into the Nets’ lead in the third quarter. Jamal Murray had several timely buckets in the lane, and Jokic continued his stellar night with jumpers, transition buckets and postups against a helpless Nets frontcourt. Jokic tipped in his own miss to give the Nuggets a 68-67 lead late in the third and followed that up two-handed slam shortly thereafter.
Spencer Dinwiddie’s halfcourt 3-pointer as the third quarter ended gave the Nets a 82-76 lead.
The Nuggets assaulted the glass with an 54-42 advantage, the 11th time in 12 games they’ve outrebounded their opponent. The Nuggets’ second-rated defense also held the Nets to just 40 from the field. The Nuggets, aside from Monte Morris, didn’t get their typical production from the bench that had been so reliable.
It’s been a chaotic week for Jokic, who was fined $25,000 for an offensive remark and then took one shot in Wednesday’s loss to Memphis. Malone, tired of hearing the noise surrounding his star, offered a fervent defense.
“Give the kid a break,” Malone said. “He made a mistake, he’s paying for it, get off his back a little bit.”
But the more pertinent on-court issue for Jokic concerned his relative lack of aggression over the past two games against Memphis and Boston.
“As the face of our franchise and as our best player, one field goal attempt, three field goal attempts, less than five field goal attempts, whatever it is, is not enough,” Malone said. “We need a lot more shots for him, and that’s on me, that’s on his teammates but most of all, it’s on Nikola to take that responsibility, to take that burden and look to set the tone early in the game.”
Jokic did against the Nets. The Nuggets’ centerpiece secured a first-half double-double, finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds over the first two quarters. His shots came within the flow of the offense, and his production carried the Nuggets as the Nets rained in 3-pointers. Jokic began with an elbow jumper, buried a 3-pointer from the top of the arc and then feasted in the paint with his back to the basket.
It was the type of assertiveness that his teammates have come to expect and rely on from him and was especially important with Harris and Murray struggling to find their shots.
The Nets got up by as much as 14 while shooting 9 for 23 from 3-point range, which was the result of an overzealous Nuggets defense. The Nuggets – and Jokic – did themselves no favors with 11 turnovers and trailed 55-47 heading into halftime.
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