As the clock wound down, Nikola Jokic pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
The two-time reigning MVP buried a game-winning 3-pointer from the top of the arc, and the Nuggets seized their sixth consecutive win, surviving the Magic, 119-116, on Sunday night.
“Are you not entertained?” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said to open his news conference after his team won for the 16th time in their last 19 games.
“It’s probably good to have a game like this,” said Malone, alluding to his team’s ability to win ugly.
After blowing a 15-point second-half lead, the Nuggets leaned on their generational superstar to survive a feverish comeback by Orlando. Jokic ended the night with 17 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds for his league-leading 12th triple-double.
His dagger 3-pointer arrived with less than a second remaining in the game.
NIKOLA JOKIC CALLED GAME 😱 pic.twitter.com/5zu0ALNLn4
— NBA (@NBA) January 16, 2023
Against his former team, Aaron Gordon registered 25 points and eight rebounds. He buried two clutch free throws late in the fourth after struggling from the line most of the night. Denver shot just 10 for 19 from the free-throw line and turned it over 16 times to leave the door open for the Magic.
Former Nugget Bol Bol scored 17 in his return to Denver, and Orlando’s size, with Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, nearly stunned the Nuggets in the second half.
Michael Porter Jr. finished with 16, and Jamal Murray, who buried a desperation 3-pointer late, added 18.
But Jokic’s heroics ensured there’d be no such meltdown, and the Nuggets improved to 30-13 on the season. It was their 13th straight win at Ball Arena.
The Nuggets opened the third quarter like they thought the game was already won. There were sloppy passes and defensive malaise that gave the upstart Magic life. A quick timeout didn’t inject the requisite energy, and it wasn’t until rookie Christian Braun checked in midway through the quarter that Denver responded. He immediately snagged two offensive rebounds and finished a dunk within his first minute of action.
Braun checked in, partially, because Bones Hyland had exited the game with a right ankle sprain. But the Nuggets needed his energy, anyway. An underwhelming defensive effort yielded a 34-point quarter for the Magic, and Denver headed to the fourth up just 94-88.
Over their last three weeks of stellar play, Malone was, unsurprisingly, most ecstatic about the defense. The offense has never been in question; it’s the defense that can take the Nuggets to new heights.
Since Dec. 7, the Nuggets’ defense has ranked sixth in the NBA – a far cry from the 28th-ranked outfit they were at their low point.
“Over 18 games, I think the numbers are real,” Malone said.
Within that, their 3-point defense has been stingy as have their turnover numbers, which have aided their transition defense. There’s been more urgency and more commitment overall to address their biggest vulnerability.
Since returning from a heel injury several weeks ago, Porter has been at the heart of their resurgence. His length has helped as has his awareness. Malone called his recent effort on both ends “tremendous,” as he raved about his willingness to play within himself and within the team’s construct.
In the first half against Orlando, he flashed as the low-man in the defense, forcing one of the Magic’s nine first-half turnovers.
In keeping with their recent trend, Denver was, again, sound defensively in building a 69-54 halftime lead. Orlando’s turnovers bled into 19 fastbreak points in the first half. There were dunks, alley-oops and open 3s all as a result of their plucky defense.
Porter entered halftime with four 3-pointers, and Gordon was extremely efficient with his 15 points. Naturally, Jokic spearheaded the offense that shot 62% in the first half and shared the ball for a combined 21 assists.
Jokic finished the first half with 10 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, flirting with a rare first-half triple-double. His touch passes were sublime, and his vision found his teammates open before they even realized it.
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