Nikola Jokic should be headed to Charlotte next month for the All-Star Game.
Don’t expect the Hornets, who were pummeled by the Nuggets’ ascendant center on Saturday, to welcome him.
Jokic, who once again heard “M-V-P” chants from the sold-out crowd, poured in a season-high 39 points, snagged 12 rebounds and dished 6 assists as the Nuggets pulled away in the second half for the 123-110 victory. It was the Nuggets’ fifth win in a row and their 10th consecutive at the Pepsi Center.
It’s also the latest in a season the Nuggets have been in first place in the Western Conference since 1977.
Though Jokic dominated, the Nuggets’ defense returned to form. They converted 17 turnovers to 27 points and kept Kemba Walker (6 of 17 from the field for 20 points) largely in check. Paul Millsap had four of the Nuggets’ 10 steals to go along with 18 points. Gary Harris added 17 off the bench and looked every bit as explosive as he did earlier in the season.
Jamal Murray entered Saturday afternoon with an average of more than 30 points per game over the Nuggets’ winning streak, but he appeared to labor through a tough first half. Since Dec. 1, Murray has averaged nearly 36 minutes per game, which is the most on the team.
“It’s more about his health and making sure that his ankles, he’s going to fight through everything,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of keeping Murray fresh. “He never wants to come out of the game. He’s a tough kid mentally and physically. We don’t want to just think about today, you’ve got to also step back sometimes and think big picture. We want to be a team that’s playing well after the middle of April. We’ll continue to monitor his situation. When we need to rest him we will.”
Murray has a penchant for playing through pain and has only missed one game in his career.
“Ultimately, I know who I’m dealing with,” Malone said. “Sometimes, that’s my job as a head coach. I really don’t care what you have to say, Jamal. I’m doing what’s best for you. You may not realize this in the moment. But you gotta take a seat here because we’re going to need you moving forward.”
Part of Malone’s task over the next couple weeks will be to reintegrate his former starters – they’re still waiting on the return of Will Barton – and ease his reserve players back into more limited roles. That could mean less playing time for Trey Lyles or Malik Beasley.
Torrey Craig’s playing time could see a decrease as well, but he played particularly well in December and had another good game against the Hornets.
“Torrey is not just being regarded as he’s out there to guard,” Malone said. “If you leave him open, he can also step up and make a shot, he can also get to the basket.”
Harris, now in his third game back, looked completely unhampered by his recent hip injury. He soared for a second-quarter dunk over Hornets forward Miles Bridges and buried two smooth 3-pointers to finish the first half with 12 points.
He and Millsap caught their rhythm after extended time off. Millsap was active on the glass and productive with 11 points in 11 minutes over the first two quarters.
Both came off the bench, but Malone said they’d return to the starting lineup soon.
“Sometimes, you don’t want to ruin a good thing, but at the end of the day, I know that both Paul and Gary Harris are starters,” Malone said. “They’ll be back in the starting lineup in a timely manner, but when that is, is a tough decision to make. I’m going to stay with what we’re doing right now. I think it’s working.”
Jokic paced the Nuggets with a game-high 16 points and seven boards en route to a 58-56 first half lead.
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