The Denver Nuggets outlasted the Portland Trail Blazers 116-113 in an epic game, capped off by Nikola Jokic’s 40 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He was a plus-15 tonight and made all the difference in the world. Jamal Murray added 24 points, including the last four of the game for Denver with a clutch floater and two free throws. Denver held Damian Lillard to 26 points and just 2/10 from the three-point line, an excellent performance by Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley on that end.

The Nuggets started the game with Murray, Beasley, Craig, Millsap, and Jokic, and that unit was immediately faced with problems. Murray struggled to create offense for himself a bit, while Beasley and Craig weren’t getting the requisite touches to be true threats. That left Jokic and Millsap (mostly Jokic) to play isolation ball. Jokic was mostly successful, while Millsap was hit or miss. On the other end, Damian Lillard hit some impossible shots while the rest of the Blazers shot open looks in rhythm to jump to a 17-8 lead.

Still, Denver stayed attached, forcing Portland to take shots away from the rim while getting to the rim on the other end. Some generous foul calls helped. Beasley hit a transition three, Jokic continued hitting some tough shots, while Monte Morris and Will Barton came in and hit jumpers too. All in all, it was a solid quarter for Denver, finishing ahead 34-32.

Tyler Lydon got the call from Michael Malone to close the first quarter, and he gave the Nuggets some solid minutes to begin the second quarter as well. Solid positional defense, moving the ball, and a key rebound to start a fast break that led to an alley-oop for Mason Plumlee. With the Nuggets as injured as they were and on the fourth game in five nights, they needed to buy minutes from their bench lineup, and Lydon helped in that.

As Denver’s starters reentered, Murray and Jokic began to warm up the chemistry meter like NBA 2K19, hitting shot after difficult shot, drawing fouls, and shouldering the load for the Nuggets. On the other end, Nurkic and some solid passing by the Blazers gave Denver’s rotating defense some problems, but Denver’s offensive game kept them ahead for a little while. An inexplicable stretch where Nikola Jokic didn’t touch the ball for three to four straight possessions led to a Blazers run that put Portland ahead right before the half 60-58.

In the third quarter, Nikola Jokic absolutely took over. Scoring around, over, and through Jusuf Nurkic, he sent the Bosnian Beast to the bench with four fouls. Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu tried to defend him next, and it led to one of the coolest highlights of the year.

That got the Nuggets going in a big way, and the entire team started shooting as well as we’ve seen this year. Jokic got up to 32 points and 7 assists through three quarters, and the Nuggets followed suit, going up 93-88 going into the fourth quarter.

Denver gave it all back to start the fourth quarter though. Some bad possessions by Will Barton on offense (who gets a pass obviously) and some easy looks for the Blazers on the other end neutralized Denver’s lead quickly; however, Jamal Murray and company fought back to retake it. As Jokic entered back into the game, the pace slowed down on both ends, as did the scoring. Still, Denver needed their MVP candidate to step up, and he did so on both ends, scoring nearly every time down the floor, grabbing rebounds, and directing traffic. Murray got in on the action with a floater with 30 seconds left as well to put up Denver by four. McCollum came down immediately and hit a three to cut the lead to one, After an offensive rebound on his own miss, Murray hit two free throws in the pressure cooker to put Denver back up by three points. Portland missed the last shot, and the game was history.

What the Stiffs said to watch:

Will Barton’s return

Barton made some plays in this one, including some shots off the dribble and some important spot up makes, but overall, he didn’t make much of an impact on either end. It’s understandable and will take some time to integrate him back into the swing of things, but 6 points, 1 assist, and no rebounds isn’t a great line in terms of overall involvement.

Torrey Craig minutes

Craig finished with 25 minutes tonight and basically mirrored Damian Lillard’s minutes throughout most of the contest, save for the end of the first and second halves. He did a good job of recovering and making Lillard work for every look after the Blazers point guard hit some deeeeep threes in the first quarter. Denver was a plus-9 in his minutes, but they needed the spacing and added ball handling of Monte Morris to close out this one.

Jokic triple-double?

Jokic didn’t quite have the assists racked up, but he scored very well and grabbed a high number of rebounds, finishing with 40 points, _10_ rebounds, and 8 assists. Jokic seems to play reasonably well against Nurkic now that the stigma of the matchup has worn off just a bit. Nurkic put up 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in this one, so Jokic basically dominated this matchup.

Closing thought: A major win to make up for Saturday’s loss

Denver looked perplexed by Phoenix’s athleticism on both ends of the floor Saturday night, but tonight, Denver came ready for a dog fight. Jokic was especially pissed off and took matters into his own hands on a number of occasions, and it helped to get the needed support from Denver’s second best player right now: Jamal Murray.

Denver finishes this five games in seven days stretch at 3-2, a strong mark for any team. In order to maintain their grasp on first place in the Western Conference, the Nuggets must continue to find ways to win these games. Defend home court at all costs. Make up for bad losses with impressive wins every single time. Win some games by sheer will and determination from their star players. Murray has to continue to find that consistency, while Jokic must learn to continuously impose his will in all situations.

This performances makes up for Denver’s loss on Saturday. Now, Denver has to get on track and be ready to play every single night once again.