The Denver Nuggets, even with an incredible effort from Nikola Jokic, were unable to complete the comeback against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night, losing 123-117.

On the second night of a back-to-back, expectations for the Nuggets were relatively low following an impressive win against the Phoenix Suns. Getting both wins seemed like a long shot, and with the Kings having two days of rest to prepare for the defending champions coming to their house, it was unsurprising to see the Nuggets face an impressive effort from the home team.

It took a heroic game from Nikola Jokic to help the Nuggets stay afloat. He was dynamic throughout the evening and played a special game with 36 points, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists. The Kings could do absolutely nothing against Jokic, so they found other ways to win by limiting Jokic’s teammates and taking advantage of the times when Jokic was off the floor. The Nuggets were -19 in the 10 minutes Jokic didn’t play, which was the entire difference when the Nuggets were a +13 with Jokic on the floor.

The Nuggets struggled to keep up with the Kings on the second night of a back-to-back and their fifth game in seven nights. Denver’s schedule has been brutal to this point, and after playing a game that went down to the wire last night, it’s not surprising that the Nuggets had tired legs. The degree to which Denver struggled to keep up was surprising though, as the Nugget went 0-of-9 from three-point range in the first half and had to claw their way back into the game.

Ultimately, the Nuggets finished with a solid percentage from two-point range, but it’s hard to win games while shooting 6-of-25 from three, especially when the Kings were playing at such a fast pace. Outscoring the 123 points the Kings had while shooting such a poor percentage from three would have been a certified miracle. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be tonight.

Aaron Gordon made his return to the court after missing four games, and Gordon found ways to contribute with 17 points in 33 minutes. Gordon shot 8-of-13 from the field and 1-of-3 from three, but he didn’t get to the free throw line. Gordon grabbed seven rebounds and dished three assists, so it was a decent effort from the Nuggets power forward.

Unfortunately, there was nobody for Gordon to guard, and that put a lot of pressure on the Nuggets backcourt defensively. Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Michael Porter Jr. all struggled defensively to contain De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Kevin Huerter. The Kings went smaller, especially down the stretch, and the Nuggets struggled to stay attached in important moments to the Kings’ elite shooters. Sacramento as a team shot 16-of-34 from three-point range, while Fox individually had 26 points, 16 assists, and just one turnover. The Kings point guard was in complete control during his minutes, matching Jokic stride for stride in consistently creating great shots.

Off the bench, the Nuggets scored just 22 points on 21 shots, struggling to keep pace with the Kings reserves led by Monk. Christian Braun started the game slowly but ultimately finished with 11 points and two assists. The entire rest of the bench combined for 11 points and three assists. Jackson did stagger with the second unit and helped facilitate some offense, but his connection with DeAndre Jordan just wasn’t the same on the back-to-back. JaVale McGee won his matchup against Jordan thoroughly, and the Nuggets lost those minutes as a result.

A bright spot from the bench unit was Peyton Watson, who was +8 in his 14 minutes and had three stocks during that time. His defense against Fox and Monk seemed to be the only defense that made a difference in those matchups, and it’s too bad that the Nuggets couldn’t find more time for that in their rotation late. He hustled on a night when the Nuggets struggled to find energy and consistency.

Now, the Nuggets will take a brief hiatus from basketball as the NBA prepares for bracket play of the In-Season Tournament. No teams play on Sunday, then the quarterfinals in each conference will be played on Monday and Tuesday. The Nuggets will next take the floor on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers on the road, a game that will be played on ESPN. Perhaps Jamal Murray will be back from a sprained ankle by then to compete Denver’s starting five.

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