Michael Malone tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve. At least he went home happy Saturday night.
On the same night Nikola Jokic tied Wilt Chamberlain for the most triple-doubles by a center in NBA history with 78, the two-time reigning MVP sealed Denver’s fate with a hard driving layup on one end and a clutch steal on the other. Despite landing at 3:30 a.m. Saturday after a gripping win over the Warriors late Friday night, the Nuggets hung on to knock off the Thunder, 122-117.
“Playing them is like getting a root canal,” Malone said affectionately of the Thunder late Saturday night.
Jokic’s night – 19 points, 16 rebounds and 13 assists – embodied the MVP tribute video he got midway through the first quarter in Denver’s home opener.
His effort galvanized a gritty performance from the Nuggets, who also burned the nets with 20 3-pointers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (six 3-pointers) and Michael Porter Jr. (five) led that effort. Jamal Murray sunk two free throws with nine seconds remaining before he checked out to rousing applause. In his first game back in Denver, Murray registered 16 points, five assists and four rebounds in 27 minutes.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander logged 28 points and seven assists. He nearly authored the upset, as the Nuggets did themselves few favors with 18 turnovers.
Now 2-1, the Nuggets will re-group before Monday’s game at Portland.
The first five minutes of the third quarter, Murray caught his rhythm. He bounced between all three levels of scoring, finishing at the rim, connecting in the mid-range and burying his first 3-pointer of the night. It was the most encouraging sequence since Murray returned from his ACL tear last Wednesday. But what looked like a promising defensive quarter fell apart under turnovers and more careless fouls.
Christian Braun, whose Friday night performance against the Warriors earned him rave reviews from his coach, helped combat the Thunder’s bench scoring. He drained two 3-pointers and assisted on another to Jeff Green in the corner. Denver held a slim 88-85 lead heading into the fourth.
Malone didn’t want to preempt Saturday’s result with any mentions of fatigue following Friday’s win vs. the defending champion Warriors.
“My hope is that, this being our home opener, all I told our guys, you know, ‘mental toughness,’” Malone said before the game. “We can complain about the schedule, it is what it is at this point, it’s not changing. … We have an obligation to go out there and to play as hard as we possibly can.”
That was no problem for versatile ball-handler Bruce Brown, whose skillset allows him to play any position, one through four.
Asked for his best one, Malone wouldn’t say.
“On the court,” Malone quipped.
The first half Saturday looked exactly like what you’d expect of a team on the second night of a back-to-back. The Nuggets were sluggish, sloppy and unable to find any separation against the plucky Thunder. They entered halftime tied at 55.
Gilgeous-Alexander took advantage of Denver’s tired legs, attacking the paint regardless of his defensive assignment. He drove the lane incessantly for 15 first-half points.
The Nuggets countered with seven combined 3-pointers from Porter and Caldwell-Pope in the first two quarters. Jokic logged four points, seven assists and seven rebounds early, preferring to facilitate rather than force his offense. On one stunning helper, he whipped a bounce pass across the baseline to Caldwell-Pope, who drained the 3-pointer and drew a foul.
In his first game back in front of Denver’s hometown fans, Murray slipped inside for a few easy baskets but had a team-high three turnovers in the first half.