Despite playing without MVP candidate Nikola Jokić, the Denver Nuggets rebounded from a poor start to take the lead over the visiting Golden State Warriors in the third quarter, and they made it stand up despite a furious, late-game rally from Golden State that saw them score the game’s final nine points. The 112-110 victory moved the Nuggets to within a single game of clinching the Western Conference’s top playoff seed for the first time in their NBA history. “I love the fact we’ve been in first place since the middle of December, but this is all geared towards the postseason and how we perform,” head coach Michael Malone explained following the win. “I know when the season is over, that’s how we’re going to be judged.”

The Nuggets’ postseason success depends heavily on the health of Jokić, who missed his third consecutive game as a precautionary measure with calf ’tightness’. “It’s just us being smart about it,” Malone said. “The worst-case scenario is he plays, and it creates a much bigger issue where he’s out for an extended period of time.” An MVP candidate for the third consecutive season, Jokić has averaged 33.9 minutes per game this season, and has regularly exceeded that since the All-Star break. Guard Jamal Murray, in his first full season since recovering from ACL surgery, has been ridden even harder – 35.3 minutes per game in March – but on this night, Murray ably filled Jokić’s role as the Nuggets’ engine on offense. Murray scored 26 points on the night thanks to a 10-for-21 night from the field, to go along with a team-leading eight assists, three rebounds, three steals, and a pair of blocks – including one on what could have been a game-winning three-point attempt by Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson. “Once it’s starts going to Klay, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go,'” Murray said after the win. Thompson missed a three-point attempt seconds earlier, and after the rebound came to him, he took another as the clock all but expired, only to have it harmlessly deflected away by Murray’s outstretched arm. “You know he’s not going to miss two in a row, so I jumped as high as I could and got a piece of it.”

Backup big man Zeke Nnaji, who had been spelling Jokić effectively of late, was ruled out prior to the game with a sore knee, leaving the Nuggets shorthanded, and forcing Malone to make alterations to the bench’s usual rotation. The fact that the Warriors led 36-26 after only one period seemed to encourage Malone to experiment. Veteran Jeff Green (10 points on 4-for-8 shooting, along with four rebounds and three assists) started in Jokić’s absence, and while Bruce Brown (14 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 32 minutes) and rookie Christian Braun (six points, five rebounds and a pair of steals in 16 minutes) played their usual roles with aplomb, Malone gave 20-year-old rookie Peyton Watson his second-straight game with significant minutes, and for the second-straight time, Watson delivered. After scoring five points and collecting eight points, five rebounds and a pair of blocks in the Nuggets’ 100-93 loss to Phoenix on Friday, Watson had eight points, five rebounds and three clutch blocks in 20 against the Warriors. The defensively minded rookie had 51 total minutes on the season coming into Friday’s game; and now he’s had 47 in his last two – with five blocks in the process.

Michael Porter Jr. continued his run of impressive play against the Warriors, leading the Nuggets in points with 29, and in rebounds with 11, and he did so in what’s become his usual, efficient fashion, shooting 10-for-17 from the field, including 4-for-8 from behind the arc.

The Nuggets have an opportunity to lock up the Western Conference’s top seed with a win in Houston against the Western Conference-worst Rockets (19-60) on Wednesday.