Once again, Nikola Jokic played like an MVP. And once again, the sensational Serbian didn’t have enough help.
Despite a superlative 43-point effort from Jokic, the Nuggets fell 112-99 to the Celtics on Tuesday to snap their three-game winning streak. As special as Jokic was, Denver’s myriad injuries were painfully apparent. Without five rotation players – including three starters – the Nuggets fell to 15-12 on the season. Undermanned, they’ll take their bandaged bunch to Washington for a tilt against the Wizards on Wednesday.
Jamal Murray, Jokic’s counterpart, finished with 25 points and six assists, but was undone by nine turnovers. Denver’s margin for error was already slim. Murray’s miscues made the comeback near impossible.
That was especially true given that starters Michael Porter Jr. and JaMychal Green added just two points on 1-of-15 shooting combined.
The Nuggets began Tuesday’s road trip at a massive disadvantage. Gary Harris (adductor), Paul Millsap (knee), Monte Morris (shoulder) and PJ Dozier (hamstring) were all out due to injury, and Will Barton missed his second consecutive game for personal reasons.
That granted an opening for Facundo Campazzo’s first NBA start. The feisty Argentinian brought his typical hustle, finishing with 15 points in 40 minutes. He was the only other Nugget to reach double digits.
Conversely, Boston rode its trio of stars. Jaylen Brown (27), Jayson Tatum (21) and Kemba Walker (17) were all productive enough to override what little firepower the Nuggets had outside of their star center.
Jokic finally got some help to start the third. Murray had nine points in the quarter alone, leaning heavily on his patented mid-range jumper. Both stars continued to work the Celtics – including several circus finishes from Jokic – until the Nuggets trudged all the way back to tie it at 71 with 4:09 remaining.
But a quick defensive lapse that saw Brown get loose from the perimeter built the Nuggets another hole. The Celtics closed the quarter on a 15-4 run and headed to the fourth up 86-75.
Before the game, it was hardly surprising to hear Nuggets coach Michael Malone credit the team’s defense for their three-game winning streak.
“We had lost our first three games in February and we were dead-last in the NBA in the month of February in deflections per game, at that point in time, averaging only eight,” Malone said. “Last three games, I think we’re second in the NBA with over 18 deflections per game.
“Against the Lakers we had 22,” he continued. “Facu Campazzo had seven of those. Why do I bring that up? Well deflections, to me, are just a real quick insight into how ready are we to play, how active, how is our energy, are we getting hands in the passing lane, forcing turnovers and scoring off those turnovers.”
With five points in the first half and an irrepressible motor, Campazzo played the urgent style Malone always looks for.
“(Campazzo’s) going to leave a piece of himself on the floor, and that’s why you love him because he’s a warrior,” Malone said. “Can that be contagious? Can that be infectious? I’m sure it is, but my hope is that if Facu Campazzo for some reason wasn’t playing in a game, that we’d understand the importance of bringing that ourselves, individually and collectively.”
With no adequate defensive answer, Jokic feasted against Boston’s undersized frontcourt. The Nuggets’ superstar carried the offense in the first half, finishing with 29 of Denver’s 54 points. That also included three first-half 3-pointers – a confident outside stroke that forced Boston into an impossible defensive position.
But were it not for Jokic, the Nuggets’ absences would’ve been ever more obvious. That they trailed just 59-54 at the break was a testament to his overall dominance.
Murray added 12 points and five assists, though his sloppy play gave the Celtics a 15-point lead late in the first half. The Nuggets closed the second quarter on a 21-11 run to stay within striking distance.
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