The Denver Nuggets defeated the Golden State Warriors 134-117 tonight to improve to 36-16 on the year. The Warriors were without Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and were on the second night of a back-to-back, and the Nuggets took advantage with an impressive second half. They won each of the second, third, and fourth quarters after losing the fourth quarter by just one point, allowing Denver to separate late and create some garbage time.

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić led the way for the Nuggets, playing their games in the exact way they need to play against the Warriors. Murray got buckets against Steph Curry and was the tip of the spear for many possessions. Jokić took fewer shots but filled up the box score in a big way with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 16 assists.

Vlatko Čančar started tonight’s game for Gordon and made an impact in his place, producing 17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. He filled in efficiently, capitalizing on the opportunity extremely well.

“I did not know at shootaround this morning that Aaron Gordon was not going to play,” Michael Malone shared postgame. “I grabbed Vlatko to speak to him and said listen, when Jeff [Green] was out for a month, you were in the rotation. You played well. You helped us win games…I just want you to know, Vlatko, stay with me, stay ready, and most importantly, just know that I believe in you. I trust you.”

That turned out to be prescient for tonight’s game.

Here are my primary takeaways from the Nuggets matchup with the Warriors on Thursday night:

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić take a step to avenge last year’s playoff exit

It was clear last season that the Nuggets didn’t have enough to seriously compete in the playoffs. Jokić was playing out of his mind, but the Nuggets needed somebody else to go with him consistently.

Jamal Murray is now going with him consistently.

33 points on 23 shots, including 3-of-11 from three-point range, have emphasized how important it is for the Nuggets to have another pressure point out there. Teams treat Murray like an All-Star shooter and scorer, allowing for easier opportunities for everybody on the floor, including Jokić. When Murray is running around, drawing defenders toward him, and being as aggressive as he is looking for his shot, it opens up the entire floor for everybody.

“I think Jamal, as you see him getting healthier and stronger and more confident in his body and his knee, I think he’s being a lot more aggressive in terms of running off of those catch-and-shoot type actions,” Malone shared on Murray’s night. “What I loved, he was only 3-of-11 from three tonight, but he’s shooting the ball. He’s letting it go. When Jamal Murray shoots that many threes, over the last five years, I think our winning percentage is through the roof.”

Jokić continues to be incredible, scoring 22 points on 9-of-13 from the field. His 14 rebounds and 16 assists look gargantuan on the stat sheet, as does the +26 in his 33 minutes. He’s playing at such a high level right now, and the Warriors simply had no answer for him with Green sidelined tonight. Kevon Looney is a good player, but he simply had nothing for Joker.

A new-look bench

A new month brings change as Michael Malone and the Nuggets debuted a new lineup to anchor the bench unit: Jamal Murray, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Jeff Green, and Zeke Nnaji. That group hasn’t played a minute together so far this year, and the initial results proved ugly against the Warriors. Golden State generated open threes and shots at the rim with Jordan Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, and James Wiseman.

In the second half, the Warriors began to tire out, and the Nuggets took advantage with a slightly different lineup to begin the fourth quarter: Brown, Caldwell-Pope, Braun, Green, and Nnaji. That lineup switched everything against Curry, and even though Steph made some spectacular plays, the rest of the Warriors didn’t really pick him up.

Overall, the Warriors made just six three-pointers in the second half compared to the 13 they made in the first half. Denver’s defense was far more disciplined, staying out on the perimeter and flying around where needed. It’s an identity the bench needs to have.

In related news, Bones Hyland collected his second “Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision” of the season tonight. The first was his first game back from a lingering injury.

Aaron Gordon’s All-Star snub

The NBA All-Star game reserves were announced on TNT before Michael Malone’s media availability today. Aaron Gordon was not among them.

“I think with the year Aaron Gordon is having, to me, it’s just travesty that the coaches didn’t vote him in,” Malone shared with media pregame.

Gordon sat out the game tonight with a sprained ankle. It was just the sixth game Gordon has missed, an impressively low number in an era of load management. He’s averaging close to 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists per game on career high efficiency while defending the opposing team’s best player frequently. He has had the second most impactful season on the Nuggets, who currently sit in first place in the West standings. It’s extremely rare for a top team in a conference to have just one All-Star representative.

The Nuggets will still have representatives beyond Jokić at All-Star festivities with Bones Hyland playing in the Rising Stars game and Michael Malone coaching Team LeBron. Still, it would have been nice to see Gordon (or Murray) there.

Final Rotations