Tonight was the Nikola Jokic show at the Pepsi Center as the Denver Nuggets dispatched the Toronto Raptors 112-93. I don't blame the Toronto Raptors for being unprepared for him. He only played 14 minutes in the first matchup between the two teams and the Denver Nuggets do not get national press. But Jokic showed he is worthy of it, putting up a career-high 27 points to go with 14 rebounds and 4 assists as Denver handled the Raptors easily. DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 24 points but Kyle Lowry shot just 3-of-12 from the field, and no other Raptors managed to step up, despite a huge 39-15 free throw disparity in favor of Toronto.
Jokic scored the first 11 points for the Nuggets, and Jokic's block and fastbreak led to his assist of a Faried layup and a 13-11 lead by Denver. The offense flowed through the rookie big man as well, with his passing setting up their offense the rest of the game. The Nuggets hit layup after layup early layup but Toronto answered with threes. Gary Harris nailed a 3 to put Denver back up 18-17. Jusuf Nurkic came in when Jokic needed a rest and promptly blew a couple of interior shots but scrapped on the boards to put the Nuggets up 25-24 despite several late free throws by Toronto. An airballed 3 by Randy Foye closed out the period with a 28-all tie as neither team played much defense.
The second quarter started off as a brickfest, with Barton missing or getting blocked on multiple drives but the Raptors could not take advantage. Jokic came in early in the second and helped the Nuggets get the first bucket of the period with 2 minutes gone. Denver's bench woes continued as the Nuggets only scored 4 points in the first 5 minutes of the second but Will Barton finally made an interior shot and put Denver up 34-33. Harris came back in and hit a 3 for a 39-35 lead but the Nuggets struggled to get stops, with the Raptors getting 19 free throws to the Nuggets 2. Jokic was everywhere. Passing, rebounding, scoring - he covered all aspects, and helped Mudiay orchestrate the strong early passing game ((17 assists on 25 buckets in the first half). The Serbian got fouled on a three that was uncalled and Malone drew a tech yelling about that foul-shooting discrepancy and the ridiculous non-calls. Denver had a 5 point lead when Toronto's James Johnson twisted his ankle fouling Danilo Gallinari. Gallo's free throws and Emmanuel Mudiay's drive put the Nuggets up 9 anyway, 51-42. The Nuggets were humming on offense and Faried dunk followed by a Gallo three and Mudiay jumper bumped the lead to double digits at the break, 60-49.
The teams began the third as cold as they started the second, with DeRozan getting the first bucket for either team with more than 2 minutes gone in the second half. Gallinari and Kenneth Faried get a couple of buckets but the score didn't budge much from halftime with 66-53 with 7 minutes left. Nuggets turnovers wasted possessions but the Nuggets put the screws to Toronto on the boards until Jokic's emphatic dunk increased it to a 69-57 lead. Jokic had 6 quick points - pushing his line to 23 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists after three quarters - and a Barton bucket bumped the lead to 15. The bench, led by Foye and Barton, never allowed the Raptors back into the quarter or the game, and lifted the Nuggets to an 80-65 lead after 3.
The Nuggets opened the fourth with an acrobatic throw-in rebound by Barton who finally found his groove. He followed that with an athletic up-and-under in the paint for a three point play followed by a drained three by Will the Thrill that hammered the lead to 88-65 in the first 90 seconds. Nothing the Raptors could do would turn the tide after that. Foye made a couple of threes in his best game since December and the Nuggets kept forcing turnovers. With just over 7 minutes left Barton took an alley-oop to make it 99-72 and the Raptors started their white-flag substitutions. Toronto promptly went on a 9-0 run as the Nuggets took their foot off the gas, and needed - you guessed it - Jokic to break the 100-point barrier. Joffrey Lauvergne got into the game late with a couple of shots, as did Sean Kilpatrick, who airballed Denver's last shot attempt. Mike Miller was called for a tech on a made three-point play and a foul for the ultra-rare 5-point play for Toronto. That last minute was about the only thing that went wrong for the home team as the Nuggets won 112-93.
The Nuggets needed a good game on both ends of the court to subdue the visiting Raptors and they got it. Denver held Toronto to 37% shooting while making 54% of their own buckets and notching 28 assists. The Nuggets dominated the boards 49-35 as Jonas Valanciunas could not fight through his injured thumb to compete in the second half, and James Johnson did not return from his sprained ankle. Denver did not let the free-throw adversity affect them, and they kept their poise (until that last minute with Miller) when it could have gotten chippy. The Nuggets played team basketball in a way that hints at how much fun future years might be. They forgot how to score in the third quarter but didn't let up on Toronto, and they closed out the by winning the fourth quarter rather than letting the game get close. It was a complete effort.
Jokic was unstoppable. From the opening tip, no one slowed Nikola Jokic. Malone intended to play him 30 minutes tonight and did, even altering his hockey-line substitution patterns to try to take advantage of Jokic's all-around game, and it absolutely worked. Jokic came back in early to steady the second unit's offense in the second quarter and getting Jusuf Nurkic a bit more time with the starters. It didn't help Jusuf hit any more shots (he went two-of-ten from the floor with most of the misses inside of 6 feet) but Jokic thrived under the increased responsibilities of initiating the offense and cleaning up the glass. The 20 year old set the tempo, and both Mudiay and Gallinari followed his lead. Bully ball may be Jokic's weakness, but just about every other thing in his game is a strength at this point. If you don't possess a big capable of playing bruising basketball, Jokic will make you pay, and Kyle Lowry acknowledged the whooping in his post-game comments:
Full Lowry quote: pic.twitter.com/3XvAeMbyIu— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) February 2, 2016
Ceremonial ass-kicker, thy name is Nikola Jokic. Here's his post-game interview (courtesy of @The_NGUYENNER).
And his game highlights. Enjoy!