LOS ANGELES – Jamal Murray flung himself into the first row Friday night, indifferent of the Clippers fans he landed amongst and unconcerned with the spilled drink at his feet.
Without Nikola Jokic, who remained in Denver nursing a sore right wrist, that was the commitment level required for the Nuggets to seize their fifth consecutive game and 15th of their last 18. The 115-103 win was a testament to a swarming defense that found a way to win without their MVP.
Jamal Murray poured in 24 points, including a team-high eight rebounds. Some of his boards came amid heavy traffic, where Jokic usually roamed. Michael Porter Jr. added 22 points, while Aaron Gordon finished with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists. Without Jokic, Gordon flexed his playmaking ability – a talent that doesn’t get nearly enough attention when the offense flows through Jokic.
In addition to his complete night, Gordon’s defense on Kawhi Leonard was tenacious. Leonard managed 24 points, with most of his damage coming in the first half. The Nuggets gave up just 45 points in the second half.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Jokic sat with a wrist injury that had been “bothering him for a while,” but suggested optimism he might be available on Sunday vs. the Magic.
But perhaps more importantly, Malone said Jokic had a new appreciation for what the Nuggets are trying to accomplish this season.
“I think he understands it’s important to take a step back sometimes and (take) perspective, big picture,” he said. Prideful in his availability, it’s an attitude that Jokic hasn’t always employed.
The third quarter began with a scare when Murray came down hobbling after finishing high off the glass with his left hand. But a quick thumbs up toward the bench and a fresh shoe tie kept him in the game. From there, Denver’s defense asserted itself.
Bruce Brown played bigger than his frame when caught in isolation and forced a miss. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stood up John Wall, and even DeAndre Jordan, starting in place of Jokic, got in on the act. He helped force a turnover on Wall that led to a Porter run-out jam. As Porter took off on one end, Jordan stood and screamed at his bench for his defensive stop. Their stingy defense yielded just 23 points in the quarter and helped pace an 86-81 lead going into the fourth.
Malone did his best to remind his team that last week’s rout over the Clippers had no bearing over Friday’s outcome.
“(Our guys) understand what happened a few weeks ago in Ball Arena,” he said, anticipating an aggressive, motivated Los Angeles outfit.
The Nuggets, even without their leader, responded accordingly. They entered halftime down just 58-57 but with a ton to show for their quality first half. Porter had 14 points, including two 3-pointers and two tough, physical finishes inside. Given his lengthy injury history, it appeared he’s recently turned a corner in terms of the confidence while playing through contact.
Gordon flashed a playmaking ability that was rarely, if ever, seen alongside Jokic. His vision and skill helped cut through Los Angeles’ defense while he tried to hamper Leonard on defense. He, Murray and Jordan all contributed to Denver’s 16 first-half assists.
The lone vulnerability was the bench, where the Nuggets were outscored 25-8 in the first half.