The Nuggets dropped their third straight game this season to the Kings, losing 119-114 in a game where their depth was tested.
Nikola Jokic finished with a massive double-double, setting a new career high with 50 points to go with 12 assists. Unfortunately, the next highest point total was 14 points from Millsap, and that scoring production wasn’t enough to put away Sacramento in the Saturday matinee game.
The Kings had a huge game from their rookie Tyrese Haliburton, who had 23 points and six assists, and was huge for his team in the fourth quarter. Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes, and De’Aaron Fox all had over 20 points as well in the team’s third straight win.
The Nuggets started off with a lot of Will Barton, who was able to get a couple shots to fall. They found some success getting to the rim, with Jokic picking up four quick assists in the first three minutes. RJ Hampton and JaMychal Green were the first two reserves off the bench for Coach Malone, as the Nuggets dug deep into their bench with the absence of Jamal Murray, Facu Campazzo, and PJ Dozier. Michael Porter Jr wasn’t able to get his first two 3-point attempts to fall, but was active on the glass with a handful of rebounds in his first stint.
De’Aaron Fox knocked down his first two 3-point attempts, shaking Green with a nasty stepback for the first and knocking down a wide-open jumper from the top of the arc for his second. Markus Howard got some run in the final minutes, in a lineup with Jokic, Green, Barton and Hampton. Green was able to cut and finish some layups courtesy of Jokic, and the Nuggets were able to get the score to 26-25 at the end of the quarter.
Vlatko Cancar got to start the second quarter for Jokic, who had played the entire first quarter, even with Isaiah Hartenstein healthy and available. Green and Howard made back-to-back 3-pointers, but Haliburton was able to get another layup to even balance the scales once again. Cancar blocked a Hield 3-pointer, and the Nuggets got a fastbreak layup from Millsap as a result. Hampton got a rebound off a Hield missed 3-pointer, and went coast-to-coast after seeing that Marvin Bagley III wound up on him in transition for a nifty finish.
The starters began making their way back on the court, with Harrison Barnes getting red hot as soon as he checked in with a couple of 3-pointers to erase the four point lead the bench had fought for. A couple lazy passes from Howard and Morris kept the Nuggets off the scoreboard, but a nice defensive possession lead to a MPJ 3-pointer that he got to fall. The Nuggets got a stop, and Jokic pushed the ball with numbers, with the ball winding up in the hands of Paul Millsap for a monster two-handed dunk. Hampton knocked down a corner 3-pointer to tie the game after a Barnes dunk, but Haliburton hit a corner 3-pointer of his own on the other end. Monte Morris hit a layup for the final basket of the first half, putting the score at 53-52 Kings to go into halftime.
The Nuggets started the third quarter with a nice defensive possession, then Millsap took advantage of a defensive miscue by the Kings to step into an easy 3-pointer. The Kings targeted MPJ for a couple baskets, working to maintain a slight lead as the quarter continued. Richaun Holmes kept making these little shotput floaters, capitalizing on pick and roll possessions with Fox and Hield. Millsap was able to draw a foul on Haliburton off a 3-point attempt, but he only made one free throw. Barnes made his fifth straight 3-pointer, but the Nuggets got Monte Morris open for an answer shortly after to tie the game back up.
MPJ missed a midrange jumper early in the shot clock, continuing his cold shooting for the game. The Nuggets finally got Holmes to miss his little push shot, but the Kings got the offensive rebound, and Fox was able to knock in his third 3-pointer. The reserves began to check in for the Nuggets, and they were welcomed by an alley-oop from Whiteside. Jokic took the former Trail Blazers big man into the post for a hard-fought basket, getting to the free throw line to get to 25 points in the game. Barnes got to the rim off a cut, continuing his excellent night with an easy layup to get the lead up to six points. That’s where the lead would sit at the end of the third quarter, with the Kings ahead 87-81.
The fourth quarter didn’t start well for Denver, with Haliburton making a couple 3-pointers to put the Kings up by double digits. Denver missed a couple jumpers, but were finally able to get a bucket with Jokic setting up Green for a 3-pointer that lead to a Kings timeout. Both teams struggled to convert shots into makes after the timeout, with the Nuggets turning up the intensity on defense to try to rally. Jokic went on a personal 6-0 run, leading the Kings to call timeout with the lead down to two possessions. Haliburton hit a corner 3-pointer after the timeout, but Jokic hit one too to keep Denver behind by six.
De’Aaron Fox hit another jumper, but the Nuggets were able to counter with a hustle play by MPJ, who got to the line after an offensive rebound. Fox hit another floater, and Jokic countered with a post-up into a layup. The Kings got a dagger from Haliburton, who hit his fifth 3-pointer to put his team up by nine points with 55 seconds remaining. Jokic hit another shot to reach a new career high in points with 50, but the Kings made their free throws down the stretch and put the game away.
Three Things I Saw
RJ Hampton gave good effort. It’s hard to expect a lot from a guy with 46 total minutes in the NBA, and is celebrating his 20th birthday tomorrow. Hampton looked hesitant to look for scoring opportunities when the ball hit his hands, and the Kings defense reacted accordingly. Hampton did hit a corner 3-pointer, and had a nice play in transition against Marvin Bagley III. He made a lot of hustle plays, and at least looked like he belonged in the NBA with his athleticism. He has a long ways to go, but in his first stint with extended minutes, he looked as good as can be expected!
Tough game to look back on. Being without four guards is going to make it hard to win any game, but this was one the Nuggets could have really used. They were able to keep things close, but didn’t have the horses to win this. It’s more important to have players like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray get right before coming back, but dang would it have been nice to beat the Kings once this season. I can’t believe that’s a thing that I can even say.
Jokic needs help. Yes, Jamal Murray was out. Yes, Gary Harris was out. That would have made a huge difference in a game that came down to the wire. But Jokic should not have to be shooting over 30 times a game. I understand the front office’s reluctance to trade future assets for present success, but their All-Star center is having a MVP caliber season, and this team is starting to look like one that doesn’t have the supporting cast that he deserves. If at the end of the season, we look back and realize not enough was done to help a player in his prime, we’re going to feel a little silly.