The Denver Nuggets absolutely fell apart down the stretch and lost ugly to the Sacramento Kings, 102-98. The Kings were on a road back-to-back, playing at altitude, and still had an 11-0 stretch late to put Denver away after Denver had a double-digit lead for much of the game. Aaron Gordon came to play with 20 points and a season-high 15 rebounds, but aside from Michael Porter Jr.’s 19 nobody really came along. Nikola Jokic was 5-of-14 from the field, and his 11 point, 5 rebound, 8 assist night was so lackluster that he was passing out from 8 feet late in the game while single-covered to force Justin Holiday to take crucial shots. Denver had this game if they’d wanted it and to their credit the Kings wanted it more. De’Aaron Fox had 20 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, and Domantas Sabonis had 20 / 12 / 6 to help the Kings laugh their way into the All-Star Break while the Nuggets crawled in on a three-game losing streak – and despite the other two being blowouts, none of the losses were worse than this one.

Game Recap

MPJ opened up the scoring with a 10-foot baseline jumper, then buried a three off a cross-court Jokic assist. Sabonis flipped in a left-handed bucket, but a wonderful pass from Justin Holiday to Reggie Jackson for a layup made it 7-2 Denver early. Huerter made a three for Sacramento that Justin Holiday answered, and De’Aaron Fox botched a monster dunk attempt. Jokic got his first couple of buckets abusing Sabonis inside and forced a timeout at 14-5 Denver. Jokic and MPJ both missed an easy transition finish and Collin Gillespie blew one also, and a couple of Fox buckets off turnovers and mental errors closed the gap to 5. Aaron Gordon had a beautiful dunk through contact, and Christian Braun made a three that Davion Mitchell answered. AG had another great paint finish before going to the bench, and Sacramento got a nice cleanup by Alex Len after a nice defensive play from Peyton Watson. Zeke Nnaji went up-and-under, then had a nice finish at the rack in the closing seconds and Denver went into the second quarter up 27-16.

Porter made a push shot off a nice Reggie Jackson rebound to start the second, then forces in a bucket through contact. Nnaji made some free throws while Fox responded with a couple of his own, then Reggie cashed in a shot off the bank. Jokic came back in with more than 8 minutes remaining and an 11-point Denver lead at 35-24, but Denver’s offense still bogged down a bit with missed shots while Sacramento climbed back into the game with good shots and free throws. They cut Denver’s lead to 5 before a Justin Holiday made 3, and Chistian Braun blocked Monk on the other end. AG put back a Braun miss to put Denver back up by 10 at 40-30, and free throws stretched that to 14. AG had a Jokic-assisted dunk sandwiched by some nice Fox buckets, and Reggie Jackson pushed a nice full-court transition bucket. He missed the dunk on his next attempt but assisted Jokic’s mid-range bucket in the closing seconds and Denver led at halftime 53-41.

Reggie Jackson made a nice pull-up jumper to open the second half, but Sabonis got an and-one bucket over Holiday. The Jokic-to-Gordon connection continued to prove effective with another dunk, Porter buried a three, and Jokic hit a bank shot to put Denver up 16. Barnes made a 3 for the Kings, and Jokic committed a couple fouls, but Gordon kept crashing the glass on defense despite slipping in transition as some ugly basketball broke out between the tired teams. Denver led 62-51 when Gillespie made an MPJ-assisted 3, but a turnover from Holiday turned into a Huerter 3 the other way. MPJ got Gordon a dunk but couldn’t finish his own shot the next time down and Denver could not stretch their lead. Gordon kept dominating the boards but both Jokic and coach Michael Malone got hit with technical fouls for not getting a foul call on a shove on a Jokic shot attempt. Malone protected his player by getting his own tech and Jokic stayed in the game, but Gordon missed his next couple shots and Sacramento cut the lead to 69-63. Jokic assisted a Peyton Watson 3 that Fox answered, and Denver couldn’t find offense. Sacramento got to the line to cut it to three as the boos rained down, but Jokic made a layup in the closing minute that Sabonis returned with a dunk, and Nikola missed a three and a buzzer heave to leave Denver up just 74-71 with one quarter to go.

Reggie made another bucket to open the fourth and Nnaji had a block, MPJ hit a 360 turnaround jumper, but Sacramento made free throws and got a putback to cut the lead back to 3. Zeke Nnaji made free throws, Reggie Jackson turned the ball over, and Sacramento’s fastbreak cut it to 1 and forced a Malone timeout. Jokic had to come back in with 8 minutes to go again and immediately set a screen for Porter to make a long 2. Watson fumbled a drive and then committed a foul that let Sacramento make a 3 to tie it. MPJ and Chris Duarte exchanged threes, a Sabonis bank shot gave Sacramento their first lead of the game, and AG’s free throws made it 87-all with four and a half minutes to go. Gordon was great at free throw line, making both his next time down also, and Reggie Jackson made a buzzer-beating 20-footer. Jokic made a runner, Barnes hit an off-balance three for the Kings, and MPJ’s miss led to a Sacramento bucket and a 94-93 lead. Holiday missed, Fox made a paint bucket for the three point lead and Denver was in trouble. Reggie Jackson turned the ball over, Holiday missed again in transition, and Fox capped an 11-0 run to get the lead to 100-93 and force the Nuggets to take a bad three-game losing streak into the break. The final score of 102-98 can’t possibly measure the disappointment that this game was.

Final Thoughts:

– The Nuggets better find their pride soon. The second half of this game was a joke. Aaron Gordon was the only player out there acting like winning actually mattered to him, and deserved better than what his teammates showed up with to be honest. Jokic was dodging responsibility late, Porter missed key defensive assignments, Collin Gillespie was a mess on both ends. Reggie Jackson played tired and sloppy, Peyton Watson couldn’t complete a good play on offense, and the whole team looked like they packed it in at halftime. Sacramento didn’t, and they clawed their way back to victory. Denver quit on the game and wanted to go home, and now they get to spend the week marinating in this 3-game losing streak. Hopefully they can point to this stretch of the season as a motivating factor when hanging another banner, but right now they look beat up and tired and are showing none of the competitive fire that would indicate the deep playoff run this team can achieve.

The team beating the Nuggets is not across the floor, it’s in their own locker room. Until they fix that, there isn’t much to talk about. Don’t talk about it, be about it, and right now the Nuggets aren’t about anything that involves title contention. It’s on them to find the switch they were so proud of last year and flip it. Hope they enjoy this All-Star break and come back with a few less excuses and a lot more hunger.