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Recap: Nuggets take a second-quarter punch from Minnesota, come back to win 123-116

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Nikola Jokic overcame some rough reffing to help Denver over the hump in a tough, back-and-forth battle with some help from the bench

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets flirted with disaster throughout the game, especially in a second quarter in which they gave up 43 points to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but Denver eventually prevailed 123-112. Nikola Jokic had first half foul trouble again (as well as some verbal spats with the refs) but wound up with 35 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists to drag Denver over the finish line.

Gary Harris and Will Barton combined for 28 points on a night in which Jamal Murray went for 15 points on just 7 shots, and JaMychal Green had a crucial 17 points and 6 rebounds off the bench. D’Angelo Russell had 32 points and Juancho Hernangomez came back to Denver to put up 25 points and 8 boards but it wasn’t enough as Denver took its second straight game from Minnesota this year.

Game Recap

Minnesota won the tip but Nikola Jokic got an immediate steal which turned into 2 free throws for Gary Harris. Denver gave up a drive but Millsap scored back over Juancho Hernangomez. Jamal Murray hit free throws and Harris scored on a drive but Hernangomez buried a three for a 10-8 Denver lead early. Murray hit more free throws and a three of his own, then a tough turn-around 2. Will Barton ripped Malik Beasley - showing him up after a tough outing in Minnesota where Beasley took it to him - and dunked for a 19-10 Denver lead.

Jokic took an annoyance foul as he felt he was fouled himself and wanted to talk to the ref, a bad habit the MVP candidate has yet to shake, then committed a turnover. But he swished a paint shot, and Barton fed Paul Millsap for another bucket. Jokic got a reverse in off the glass, Harris missed a layup but won a tip and Jokic turned it onto a Barton three and the nuggets put up 28 points with 4 minutes left. The Nuggets got a bit loose with the basketball in the first (and Jokic got his second foul) but that was their only real flaw as this Jokic-to-Green bounce pass was special:

The Nuggets played JaMychal Green at center for the last 2 minutes of the first and - with Murray getting time with the bench unit and despite going cold from the field - ended the quarter with a Monte Morris assist to Green for a dunk and a 34-22 Nuggets lead.

Denver started off the second quarter with a 24 second clock violation and a bit too much passing, but Green hit a three and Facundo Campazzo blew by Reid for a layup. Murray orchestrated the offense for open shots and foul shots, and Green buried another deep shot for a 43-29 Denver lead. Millsap got a great tip-in and then the Jokic-to-Campazzo connection paid off with an acrobatic lay-in-and-foul. Anthony Edwards got Jokic in a poster dunk but Denver still had a 14 point lead halfway through the quarter.

Minnesota then went on an 11-4 run thanks to some turnovers and non-calls on Jokic, and a pair of three from D’Angelo Russell and Juancho Hernangomez closed it to 55-48 Denver. Jokic then got called for a tech for doing a chin-up on the rim after a dunk - something that was thought to be a mythical feat for Denver’s center, like killing the Lernean Hydra or obtaining the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Here’s something special, folks:

It felt well worth the tech, but then Jokier got another tech for yelling at the refs for not calling a foul for him, and then got his third foul on a cheap call from an angry ref to make him sit the last 2 minutes as Minnesota kept coming, finishing a 30-6 run in the second quarter to give up the whole lead and nothing but turnovers and fouls for Denver. Juancho murdered Denver in the first half with 21 points, Jarred Vanderbilt played like Draymond Green against his old squad, and somehow Denver was down 65-62 at the half.

The Nuggets came out for the second half looking disgruntled but Minnesota looked loose and ready, and despite Jokic orchestrating the Nuggets couldn’t close the gap. Russell and Hernangomez continued to hit, keying an 11-6 Minnesota run to increase their lead to 8. The Nuggets took a timeout, gathered and found some effort on both sides. Barton hit a three, Jokic finally got those free throws he’d wanted, and Denver at least contested shots (a strange Murray duck-out before he got dunked on aside). A Harris floater and a Barton slam cut the Minnesota lead to just 2 at 82-80. Denver couldn’t get over the hump though, trading baskets while the starters were in there and trying to keep up with the hustle of Minny’s Vanderbilt and others.

Denver scraped its way to the free throw line again as the fouls racked up against Minnesota, but they’d missed 10 with 15 minutes left in the game. Still, a Barton steal led to a PJ Dozier layup and a tie game at 87. Green hit a three to finally get Denver the lead in the third, but Russell answered back for Minnesota. The bench without Jokic started to falter, however, and Jokic came back in with a minute left in the quarter and answered a Timberwolves three with one of his own. Still, the quarter ended with Denver in the same position: still trailing by 3 at 96-93.

The Timberwolves started off the quarter with two straight baskets before Jokic got a pair of bank shots and Monte Morris buried a three for his first bucket of the game to tie it at 100. Both teams had some empty, rushed possessions but Jokic got a putback and the Nuggets started grinding. Campazzo scored on a drive, Jokic blocked a drive and then got a nice assist to Barton on a 15-0 Denver run and a 108-100 lead. Denver had great defensive energy with Jokic denying Minnesota’s smaller players in the paint. Vanderbilt finally scored for Minnesota but Jokic forced the 5th foul of the quarter on the Timberwolves and got to the line with just over 5 minutes remaining. Minnesota started pushing for its own points in the paint but the Nuggets kept creating offense, including a phenomenal no-no-no-YES play where an errant pass to Murray got tipped to Harris who passed to Barton for the finish.

The Nuggets scrapped but could not pull away from a fiery Timberwolves squad, missing key opportunities to extend the lead. But Jokic eventually ground down the Timberwolves the whole quarter, keeping that lead above six, closing with a 30-20 fourth quarter and efforting a much-needed win 123-116.

Final Thoughts

- Making back-to-back All NBA squads is not getting Jokic respect from the refs. I can’t think of a top-10 player in the league that has gotten this lack of a whistle against non-star defenders hacking him in a very long time, and it’s consistent with Nikola. Marc Gasol might have been close, but he wasn’t the player Jokic is. It’s infuriating, honestly, watching him get hacked without a whistle and it’s already cost Denver one win already this year (the first Sacramento Kings game).

I don’t know what film needs to be sent to the NBA or what sort of fines Michael Malone needs to rack up in his post-game chats, but since I don’t expect the first to do any good and I don’t expect Malone to pay out of pocket to criticize the refs or take techs, Jokic is going to have to figure out how to keep his focus on the game. Tonight was egregious in the first half, however.

- If Jokic isn’t on, the rest of the team struggles with focus too. The Timberwolves scored 43 points in the second quarter, and the sloppy turnovers and poor execution were a team-wide plague. Nobody could settle the team down, not coaches nor players. That’s the problem when your star gets distracted by the refs and some interesting non-calls that let the Timberwolves get on a run. The Nuggets couldn’t stop the run, though, and that’s a bigger problem going forward. They have to contain damage and tonight in the second quarter the levies broke.

- Some of Denver’s role players stepped up at necessary times. Will Barton had excellent defense on Malik Beasley in the first quarter, largely taking him out of his game and disrupting his rhythm. With Jamal Murray taking only 7 shots on the night someone had to score and Barton’s 18, JaMychal’s 17 off the bench (and three 3-pointers) and Facundo Campazzo harassing D’Angelo Russell down the stretch and putting in 11 big points helped spell the difference. For as much grief as the bench has gotten this year - and rightfully so - they had some crucial performances to help a starting unit that all finished in double figures.