NBA

Nuggets bank first win as Nikola Jokic ties franchise record for triple-doubles

The Nuggets can exhale.

After two games of questionable effort and concerning attention to detail, Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to let their losing streak stretch to three.

The Nuggets pummeled the undermanned Rockets, 124-111, behind a historic effort from Jokic. His 19-point, 18-assist, 12-rebound performance marked his second triple-double in three games, and tied him with Nuggets legend Fat Lever with 43 career regular-season triple-doubles, the most in franchise history.

Arguably the most unselfish superstar in the NBA, it should come as no surprise that Jokic sliced apart Houston’s frontcourt even though the Rockets don’t play with a traditional center. Their small-ball experiment left Christian Wood and P.J. Tucker on Jokic. One was bewildered with Jokic’s array of post moves; the other was too short to stop them.

“I don’t think he cares who he’s playing against,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “Big, small, that’s how Nikola plays every night. That’s why he’s a great player, he makes everybody better.”

The win gave the Nuggets (1-2) their first win of the season ahead of Tuesday’s quick turnaround in Sacramento, which Denver lost to opening night.

Behind Jamal Murray’s 21-point effort, seven different Nuggets finished in double-digits, including Paul Millsap (19), Gary Harris (14), Michael Porter Jr. (14), Will Barton (11) and Monte Morris (12).

With his deft vision and unparalleled feel, Jokic made the game easier for every one of them.

The Nuggets also won the rebounding battle 52-38, a point of emphasis coming into Monday night.

“Desire, urgency, want,” Malone said. “That’s what rebounding is.”

Without four players due to COVID tracing protocols, including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Houston was looking at a decided disadvantage.

Outside of James Harden’s offensive circus (34 points) and Wood (23), no one else scored more than 14.

“James Harden is James Harden,” Malone said. “I don’t care who coaches them. He’s arguably one of the most talented offensive players in NBA history. He’s that efficient, that effective of a player.”

Besides one comical sequence, where the Nuggets turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions concluded by an unnecessary Murray behind-the-back, the third quarter offered a welcome relief. The Nuggets blasted the Rockets 36-23 in the quarter, while Jokic secured his second triple-double in three games. His passing, as elite as any player in the NBA, set up four teammates for easy looks as Denver built on its lead.

With 4:05 left in the third quarter, Murray collided with Rockets wing Jae-Sean Tate leaving Denver’s franchise point guard on the ground for several minutes. He returned only a few minutes later despite a head contusion and checked back in to start the fourth, with the Nuggets up 106-83.

Considering how Denver’s season started, Malone wasn’t interested in the noise emanating from Houston’s locker room as a result of Harden’s trade request.

“This is really all about us, and us playing up to the standards that we have set for ourselves,” Malone said.

Before the game, he referenced his time in Cleveland coaching LeBron James. After reaching the Conference Finals in 2008-09, the Cavs lost their first two games of the next season, not unlike the Nuggets this year.

“We were 0-2 and the sky was falling and the world was coming to an end,” Malone said. “And lo and behold, we wind up with the best record in the NBA that year as well. It is early, obviously. There is no need to panic. We know we have to play better. I have to coach better.”

All things considered, Monday’s first half was an encouraging step for a Nuggets team trying to establish an identity outside of last year’s heroics.

Denver took a 70-60 lead into half thanks to the brilliance of Jokic. Denver’s franchise superstar carved apart the Rockets’ interior defense, hanging 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the first half alone. He was a maestro conducting his orchestra, a pilot navigating comfortable terrain.

Murray, his backcourt counterweight, also dropped 18 points on four 3-pointers.

Perhaps most importantly, the Nuggets made their presence felt on the glass, where they built a 23-18 edge over Houston. After two underwhelming games, there was no statistic that would’ve been more indicative of effort.

“Rebounding correlates to winning,” Malone said. “… If I had to say our biggest issue as a team is that we’re a ball-watching team.”

Even though that was a significant area of improvement, Harden still had his way offensively. Houston’s devilish scorer managed 28 points and six assists in the first half despite the attention he inevitably drew. But without much help, Denver’s tandem attack built a healthy cushion and was finally playing from ahead.

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