Nikola Jokic takes over as Nuggets take care of Pacers

Apr 3, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Darren Collison (2) defends against Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets hosted the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night for their final non-division game of the season. The Nuggets were without their leading scorer Gary Harris again, but a masked Wilson Chandler made his return as they picked up the 107-104 victory.

The game was never as tight as the final score suggested — Denver held the lead for much of the game and outscored the Pacers in all four quarters, but the Nuggets did struggle to pull away as neither team could find their rhythm in a somewhat anti-climactic showdown.

The opening minutes of the game looked promising for the Nuggets. Will Barton scored the team’s first nine points as Denver opened up the game on a 9-2 run, prompting Indiana head coach Nate McMillan to burn his first timeout before the nine minute mark. The starters put forth a stellar defensive effort and the ball flowed freely on offense as Michael Malone spent much of the first quarter seated calmly on the bench.

The bench didn’t quite have the same success though. Mason Plumlee and Devin Harris checked in towards the end of the quarter and the wheels fell off offensively. Indiana began to convert defense into offense and closed the gap to end the quarter.

Neither team could knock down their jump shots in the opening half and the three pointer played an unusually diminished role in the first 24 minutes of a modern NBA game — both teams shot well below 40 percent from deep. The Nuggets typically struggle in games like this — they turn the ball over frequently, they struggle to protect the defensive glass and their initial half court defense is abysmal. But they took care off the little things on Tuesday night.

Denver held a significant advantage in offensive boards and they were able to minimize the easy points for Indiana by protecting the basketball and defending the fast break well. Despite a truly poor shooting performance, Denver finished the half with far more possessions with Indiana and that allowed them to carry a slim lead into the second half. Indiana would turn their three point shooting around in the final quarters, but Denver continued to control the glass and they finished the game with 13 more possessions.

Denver would lead wire-to-wire in the second half, though they were never able to pull away from Indiana. They opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run but Indiana put together multiple stops and converted some easy looks on the other end. You could practically feel Denver’s offense tightening up as the players began looking over their shoulders for Malone’s instructions. Indiana began to chip away at the lead, but Denver’s star center took over.

Jokic dropped eight points and two assists in the quarter on 3-4 from the field and he put together a relatively strong performance on defense. In fact, most of the starters held their own in that regard; Indiana was cold in this game, but it was one of Denver’s better efforts on that end of the floor.

When both teams are cold like they were in this game, the outcome can often come down to which star player is able to take over. Jokic found his rhythm in this game — he finished with 30 points, giving him back-to-back 30 points game for the first time in his career. Victor Oladipo, however, didn’t make quite the impact on this game that he was expected to. It was a fine game for the likely Most Improved Player of the year — he finished with 25 points and seven assists — but he never really took over the game. With Gary Harris out and the defensive liability that is Will Barton in his stead, this could have been a monster game for Indiana’s favorite son. It wasn’t, and that may have been the difference.

The Nuggets survived a late push from Indiana in the fourth and held on for a slim, yet big 107-104 win. The Nuggets control their own destiny now as the divisional gauntlet to end the season begins.

“We’re not playing with pressure,” Michael Malone said after the game. “I want our guys to play free, to enjoy and embrace the moment of what we’re involved in right now. I think a lot of teams right now are playing tight with pressure on them. Not us.”

The Nuggets host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night in what is obviously the biggest game of the season to date. That game tips off at 8:30pm MT.

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