A 41-point, 17-rebound game from Nikola Jokic wasn’t enough to lift the Denver Nuggets over the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night. San Antonio went on a 16-4 run to break the game open and Denver just couldn’t overcome the deficit in a 116-97 blowout loss. 

“I thought our second quarter was a disaster on both ends of the floor,” head coach Michael Malone said. “Our bench unit played this game like it was a game in the middle of November not game 80 with a chance a clinch… Probably the most disappointing thing for me was just the lack of urgency and the lack of desperation throughout.” 

Aside from Aaron Gordon who put up 18 points and 13 rebounds, Jokic was the only Nugget who played at an elite level from start to finish and played for over 40 minutes. Jokic has carried this shorthanded Denver team on his back the entire season and is currently in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists in addition to leading the league in double-doubles and triple-doubles. It is safe to say, he’s exhausted and needs help from his teammates especially come playoff time. 

“He is fatigued,” Malone said of Jokic. “He has been carrying a team for 80 games and I can’t take him out of the game. I have to go right back to him when he’s gassed. I went back to him at the 9:30 mark tonight and he looked at me like, ‘already?’ And not complaining, because he never complains but he was like ‘all right, let’s go.’” 

Jokic is never one to brag about big games either and he always finds something he can improve on. He did that in the post game press conference and started going through all of the shots he missed.

“I missed a floater in the fourth quarter,” Jokic said. “I missed two hook shots, then I missed the floater again, the put back and the shots I usually make I missed a lot and then the 3. I’m shooting really bad threes the last 15 games so that needs to change.”  

Despite his own criticism, Jokic did put up 17 points in the first quarter. But he didn’t get much help from his teammates. San Antonio shot 54% from the field and 75% from long range to go up by as much as nine points in the quarter. Denver was able to put together a 12-2 run with less than two minutes left to make it a two-point game but the Spurs held onto the 32-30 lead. 

The Spurs took control of the second quarter and outscored the Nuggets 32-14 to take a 64-44 lead. They shot 50% from the field while holding Denver to just 25% from the field and 14% from beyond the arc. They also dominated both the paint 16-8 and the boards 18-9. 

The Nuggets came roaring back in the third after putting together a 17-7 run to get to within 10 points. Later down the stretch, they put together a 12-5 run to get to within six but the Spurs still managed to hang onto the 85-79 lead. Jokic scored 13 points on 6 of 10 shooting and grabbed six rebounds in the quarter.

San Antonio opened fourth on a 16-6 run to go up 101-85. The Nuggets were able to hold the Spurs scoreless for over two minutes but San Antonio ended up outscoring Denver 31-18 in the quarter to win it 116-97. 

The Nuggets have two more games left in the regular season with their next one against the Memphis Grizzlies at home on Thursday. The Grizzlies have been a difficult matchup this season and the Nuggets have lost to them in all four meetings. This upcoming matchup is a must win for them.

Denver is currently two games ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves in sixth place in the Western Conference. Coach Malone is confident that his team will clinch a playoff spot and avoid the play-in tournament. 

“I’m pretty faithful,” Malone said. “We have 47 wins. This is a tough loss. You don’t overact at game 80. There’s disappointment. Every loss sucks. I hate losing but I think it’s important to attack Memphis as our chance to clinch a playoff spot. Luckily for us we still control our own destiny.”