Nuggets steal No. 3 seed away from Clippers in 110-104 win

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Apr 7, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) looks to shoot the ball over San Antonio Spurs forward Drew Eubanks (14) in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t have Nikola Jokić as your top candidate for MVP already, you might want to rethink that after he powered the Nuggets to a 110-104 win on the road against the Clippers, replacing them for the No. 3 seed and winning the season series. The 3x NBA All-Star went off for 30 points and 14 rebounds, scoring 18 of those points in the third quarter. 

“He showed once again, on the road against a very good team, why he’s an MVP candidate in my eyes, the frontrunner for the MVP,” Michael Malone said. “He continues to put his team on his back.”

The Nuggets are now on a 5-game winning streak, the longest active winning streak in the league and have won nine of their last 10 games without Jamal Murray. They’ve also been without their starter Will Barton and one of the best sixth men in the league, Monté Morris.

Jokić, who’s averaging 26, 11 and 9 this season, hasn’t made any excuses. He continues to put the work in and win games. There’s not much more that can be said about him that hasn’t already been said but Malone did notice something different in his game.

“The one thing I noticed is I ran him that whole third quarter, and how fast he looks,” Malone said of what he felt was noteworthy of Jokić’s game tonight. “Those who have been in Denver for six years, how many times have we ever used fast and Nikola in the same sentence? But he looked like he had a burst on the perimeter, attacking off the dribble, getting to the cup, finishing, and that’s credit to his conditioning.” 

After dropping a 30-piece on the Clippers on 9 of 17 shooting, Jokić was back in the weight room getting a lift in. His work ethic is unmatched and Michael Porter Jr said that’s one of many things that has elevated Jokić to a more improved player. 

“This year, he knows this is his team and he’s going to go out every single night and be the MVP,” Porter Jr said. “He does it night in and night out. He’s always available for us. Another thing I respect on the jump from last year to this year is his leadership.”

Jokić has established more of a vocal presence on the floor this season and has high expectations of his teammates. If they do something wrong, he’s more open to correcting them and putting them in the right position to win. 

For example, Facu Campazzo had a costly turnover with 2:06 left in the fourth that led to a Rajon Rondo bucket and cut Denver’s lead to 3. With one minute left, Jokić drove through the lane, got double teamed and hit Campazzo with a no look pass for the corner three to give the Nuggets a 107-98 lead. He trusts his teammates and makes everyone around him better. 

As you would expect this game was a battle and went down to the wire. Kawhi Leonard returned to action after a five-game absence. He had a 9-point first half and helped contribute to an 11-point Los Angeles lead in the first quarter. In the second half, he scored only 7 of his 16 points and finished the night shooting 7 of 12 from the field. 

Paul George also had himself a game through the first three quarters scoring 18 points but didn’t play much in the fourth quarter. Michael Porter Jr and PJ Dozier had the job of guarding the Clippers’ two best players in Leonard and George and did an outstanding job. They held George to just 5 of 21 shooting from the field and only allowed Leonard 6 shot attempts in the second half. 

“It’s always fun playing against those great players because I’m striving to be in the position they’re in,” Porter Jr said. “I’m striving to be one of the best players and so to play them is always an honor and a joy.” 

Dozier, who has been starting in place of Will Barton, scored 16 points on 7 of 15 shooting and grabbed 5 rebounds. Malone was extremely impressed with how active he was on both ends of the floor especially guarding George. 

“Just to try to contain him,” Dozier said on how to shut a guy like George down. “He’s a great player. One of the best in the league and that’s why you try to go out and do. You try to contain him and stay into him.”

In the second quarter, the Nuggets defense held the Clippers to 35 percent shooting from the field and 14 percent from three and that’s where the momentum shifted. Denver had a 52-47 lead at the half and carried the lead into the third quarter where Jokić dominated the floor going 6 of 9 from the field to score 18 points. The Nuggets led by as many as 12 points. 

Then things got interesting in the fourth quarter as Clippers veterans Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins kept the game close by igniting a 7-0 run. Rondo scored 9 points in the quarter and Cousins added 10 to cut the Nuggets lead from 12 to 3 with 2 minutes left.

Jokić got fouled on a three-point shot and extended the lead back to six with 3 made free throws. Then Campazzo hit a big time three with 1 minute left in regulation to win it 110-104. 

A huge win for the Nuggets and they had even more motivation with Murray on the sidelines cheering them on. That was the first game he has been at since tearing his ACL and Dozier said he heard him the whole game. 

“We just felt the energy lift when he walked in,” Dozier said of Murray. “We just wanted to make sure his spirits were high and he definitely brought that next level of energy that we needed. I heard him personally on the sidelines when I was in the game the whole game so it was great to have him at the game with us.”

Denver has a tough schedule ahead with the Lakers, Knicks, Jazz and Brooklyn and play the next 6 of their 8 games on the road. The Nuggets are 3 games out of first place in the Western Conference standings. 

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