As always, the Sacramento Kings played the Denver Nuggets tough and took another one off their old coach Michael Malone, winning 125-115 and dropping Denver to 1-3 on the early season. Nikola Jokic had another triple double with 36 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists, and Michael Porter Jr. added 30 points and 10 boards but Denver gave up a 42 point second quarter to the Kings via atrocious defense and ran out of gas on the second night of a back-to-back, putting up just 15 points in the fourth. Defense suffered in every quarter but the third, and Denver just didn’t have the touch to reel the game back in after a big run got them the lead late in the third quarter. De’Aaron Fox had 24 points and some backbreakers down the stretch to pace a well-balanced Kings attack, which had 7 players in double figures to Denver’s 4.
The Nuggets started off the game with a bunch of ball movement leading to a Jokic-to-MPJ baseline assist. Jokic bullied his way inside for an easy bank shot, and then a beautiful cut by Gary Harris for the goaltended layup and a Jokic strip for a Morris breakaway made it 8-2 Denver early.
Joker's defense leads to easy offense! pic.twitter.com/tE5GVw0OmB— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 30, 2020
De’Aaron Fox hit a toilet bowl three and a putback dunk helped Sacramento claw back as they picked up the intensity, and a Buddy Hield 3 tied it at 16 about halfway through the quarter. Jokic got a dunk and Malone got a tech as he complained about some uncalled holding fouls by Sacramento on Denver’s All Star. The Kings had a 12-2 run though until Harris got a dunk off a Jokic dime. Jokic tied it up at 24 with a putback, Morris hit an open 3 in transition, and Jokic took over with some passes and drives to the hoop to boost the lead to 5, and the bench held the lead at a bucket, 34-32 after one.
Barton opened the second with a Facundo Campazzo assisted 3, but it was answered by Haliburton. Bjelica added another three for Sacramento to tie it at 38, then the teams traded 3s. The squads scrambled for points with a sequence of turnovers turning up as another Campazzo-to-Barton highlight, but neither team could pull away. MPJ forced down a dunk over a couple of Kings, but Marvin Bagley his his second three and a Monte Morris turnover led to a Kings runout and a 53-47 lead for the Kings.
The Nuggets defense was out of sorts, giving up threes and some awkward rotations and turnovers. The Kings pushed the lead to 10 with under 2 minutes left in the half, Jokic had another weird turnover, and Bagley powered home an uncontested dunk as Sacramento put 42 on Denver in the 2nd quarter and led 74-62.
Jokic got his 3rd foul in the opening minute of the third quarter, but threw a lob to MPJ as Denver worked on its defensive rotations too. The Kings got turnovers and had the hustle on their side early, but MPJ hit another 3 and went coast to coast on a rebound for a layup over Bagley to make it 78-69, Kings. Porter got a block, Jokic assisted on buckets and made a three, and Porter’s free throws cut it to 81-78. Harris’s steal and lay-up cut it to 1, and Jokic competed a 3-point play to retake the lead for Denver.
Denver’s defense kept a lid on the rim as they stretched the lead to 6, but Jokic and MPJ just cut up Sacramento in the third as Jokic bombed in a three for a 94-87 lead. Porter hit another three and both he and Jokic played essentially the whole quarter, leading Denver all the way back to a 100-96 lead.
MPJ hit a bucket near the beginning of the fourth, Isaiah Hartenstein couldn’t finish at the hoop in transition and Barton got tagged with a charge. MPJ missed a bunny but Denver still had a 4 point lead. His pass to Campazzo led to a hocket assist on a Dozier three, but Sacramento wouldn’t go away as De’Aaron Fox swished a step-back three and Haliburton followed with his own.
Fox got the lead back for Sacramento briefly, but Jokic came back in at the 9 minute mark and got back to work with an assist to Dozier for a layup. Morris missed a pair of threes and the two teams traded the lead with slim margins. Sacramento pulled away to a 5 point lead at 113-108 as Denver had some shots rim out and some unfortunate turnovers. Jokic got blocked, and playing on a back-to-back looked like it finally caught up to Denver as they scored just 8 points in the first 8 minutes of the 4th. Denver kept getting called for foul turnovers and could not find a way to score, with the Kings pushing the lead out to 120-108 with a dagger three from Haliburton at the end of a 20-3 Sacramento run. Morris finally broke the streak but it was too little, too late. MPJ’s attempt to draw a foul on a three went awry, Fox closed it out and Sacramento won 125-115.
MPJ is both a blessing and a curse, but he’s must-watch TV. Michael Porter Jr. is essentially in his sophomore year with just 900 regular season minutes and a playoff run to his name. In the first half he was a tragedy on defense, always in the wrong spot and letting his mistakes carry over possession to possession, minute to minute. But his scoring was on point and he carried that into the second half while improving his defensive execution.
MPJ and Jokic threw Denver on their backs and dragged them back to a third quarter lead with rebounding and shotmaking to amaze any basketball fan. They fell short at the end, but the glimpse of what MPJ can be with Jokic when he’s in the right spot is so promising. Denver’s offensive potential is off the chart, and Porter has nearly limitless upside on that end. It’s the defensive end where he has to make strides, and if it’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back situation for part of the year then Denver has to ride the out. The juice is worth the squeeze.
Jokic is amazing, and his focus this year is laser-sharp early, but sometimes it’s not enough. Nikola had 26 points, 11 assists and 6 boards through three quarters and got himself to the foul line and make sure to keep Denver in the game without Murray. His 10 turnovers for the game were an issue as unfortunately his passing got a bit desperate in the 4th, trying to create opportunities for a tired team that they could not cash in. He ran over Fox for his fourth foul and wasn’t looking to score at the end but create - and without enough scorers to cash in the passes the Nuggets’ tired legs just ran out of gas. It happens, but Denver needs more help for their MVP on both ends.
It can’t just be the Jokic Show all the time. Denver’s bench got outscored 35-19. I get that Murray was out and that took a bench player (Morris) and put him in the starting lineup, but the Nuggets have lost three out of four and had to play Jokic and Porter 40 minutes apiece on a back to back because their bench just didn’t have anything to offer - again. The defensive slip-ups were not all MPJ by any means. The lack of offensive creation without Jokic was glaring.
When your offensive powerhouse is averaging a triple-double for the season you have to do more to cash in those wins. Denver has to do better, point-blank, at locking down wins against teams they are better than. Two losses to the Kings just hurts.