OKLAHOMA CITY – The Nuggets were fully healthy for the first time in more than a month. And while they got out of the game seemingly unscathed, Oklahoma City put Denver through the ringer Friday night at Chesapeake Arena.
Jamal Murray took an elbow to the face and endured an unnerving fall in the first half. Gary Harris stayed in after getting crushed on a late layup attempt. And in the first game back after the break, the Thunder put an 113-101 hurting on the Nuggets, dropping them to 38-18 on the year and 17-11 away from home.
The loss was Denver’s first to a Northwest Division rival all season (9-1).
Nikola Jokic was superb with 32 points on 12 for 15 shooting from the field, but his fantastic performance couldn’t undo 19 Denver turnovers or their abysmal 3-point shooting.
Murray added 21 points, six rebounds and four assists, but was outdone by Oklahoma City’s All-Star point guard Chris Paul, whose wizardy with the ball caused all sorts of problems for Denver’s defense. He finished with 29 points and four 3-pointers.
Jokic and Murray worked their two-man game to perfection in the third quarter, sharing and setting each other up as one of the league’s preeminent offensive duos. Jokic buried a 3-pointer early in the period and then continued to carve up Oklahoma City’s frontcourt with a variety of spin moves. By the end of the third, he was sitting on 28 points on just 13 shots.
And Murray dug deep into his bag of difficult shots, scoring eight points in the quarter alone. On one, he ripped Paul, and then coasted for a smooth transition layup. Paul’s play ensured Oklahoma City entered the fourth up 78-77.
Will Barton, who’d missed the last four games due to right knee inflammation, picked up right where he’d left off, scoring 16 points, including several clutch shots, and nabbing nine rebounds.
Friday also saw the return of Michael Porter Jr. (ankle) and reserve center Mason Plumlee (foot).
With Barton healthy, it marked the first time since Jan. 6 that the Nuggets began the game with their preferred starting unit.
Prior to the game, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was asked why he felt Jokic hadn’t generated much MVP buzz from a national perspective despite carrying the team amid their rash of injuries.
“I’m not sure, and we don’t concern ourselves about it,” Malone said. “If you want to sleep on the Nuggets, if you want to sleep on Nikola, keep on sleeping. … We know who we have. We have an MVP candidate, we have the best center in the NBA.
“I’m not going to get into the reasons why we don’t get the perceived respect from everybody in the country, because then we’re listening to the noise … (Nikola is) not going to bed at night wondering why no one’s talking about him. He doesn’t care. He’s reading his book on horses, we’re winning games, and he’s happy.”
In addition to Jokic’s dominance, Murray had been on a tear in the last five games before the All-Star break, averaging 29 points on 57 percent shooting along with 6.2 assists.
“Keep on doing what you were doing,” Malone said. “I loved his mindset. He came back refreshed, he had his legs underneath him. But more importantly, I felt like his approach to the game, him being aggressive, him being shot-ready, was remarkable. And he was doing it in all areas.”
The challenge, then, was to carry it following the extended time off.
After a rocky opening quarter, the Nuggets settled and found their offensive groove in the second. Jokic continued to dominate inside, finishing the first half with 19 points on just seven shots, including 7-of-7 from the free throw line. Murray, who stayed in after a scary spill in the second quarter, added 11 of his own.
The teams entered halftime tied at 48 despite a significant advantage from Oklahoma City’s reserves.