Denver are no pushovers

The Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard is closely marked by the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (left) and Mason Plumlee while driving to the basket in the first quarter of Denver's 95-86 home win on Sunday. Victory over the league-leading Raptors helped th
The Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard is closely marked by the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (left) and Mason Plumlee while driving to the basket in the first quarter of Denver's 95-86 home win on Sunday. Victory over the league-leading Raptors helped the Nuggets go top of the Western Conference for the first time in 34 years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Short-handed Nuggets beat league-leading Raptors to boast West's best record again

DENVER • The last time Denver topped the National Basketball Association's (NBA) Western Conference was Dec 18, 1984 and, 34 years later, the Nuggets are breathing that rarefied air again.

But, while they are "doing a really good job at tempering their own excitement" despite a 10th win in 12 games, the Nuggets are showing they are no longer pushovers after a 95-86 victory over the league-leading Toronto Raptors on Sunday.

Coach Michael Malone told the Denver Post: "My message to our team a little while ago was, 'I don't care who's playing for them'.

"When you start focusing on who's out, you're worried about the wrong things. We have a job to do. Teams look at us right now with players out, they think maybe they can just show up and beat us.

"We've shown teams, no, that's not the case. We have more than enough players who are going to go out there and battle and compete."

Having failed to make the play-offs since the 2012-13 season, the Nuggets are relishing being "the best team for the time being".

Toronto coach Nick Nurse also feels that with the likes of Nikola Jokic, Denver have to be taken seriously after the match-up between the best of the East and the West saw his team drop to 23-9, while the home side improved to 20-9.

He said of the Serbian centre, who paced his side with 26 points, while bringing down nine rebounds: "A lot of conventional things you would think you could do to a guy don't seem to apply.

"Sometimes, we'll give him a lot of pressure, sometimes we won't… He seems to play through everything."

Toronto, who were held to under-40 per cent shooting, were led by 29 points from Kawhi Leonard.

While they were hampered by the absences of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry - the league's joint-highest assist-maker with an average of 10.0 this season - Denver were equally short-handed.

The Nuggets were missing Will Barton, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap in their starting line-up, although Malone revealed Barton was close to returning, having been in the treatment room since undergoing hip surgery on Oct 23.

He added: "If it's within the next week to 10 days, it'd be great to have him back. He's such a versatile part of what we do."

Despite the injuries, expectations are growing at the Pepsi Centre that the Nuggets are no flash in the pan given their roster strength.

With Jamal Murray, who contributed 19 points, and Monte Morris, who added 12, they also have two point guards whose differences "complement each other".

Sue Bird, Denver's basketball operations associate said: "Obviously when Jamal's in the game, he's a guy who can clearly put up big numbers in terms of scoring.

"Then you have Monte, it's well-documented, his assist-to-turnover ratio is insane. He's less of a risk taker but can make big plays."

In Washington, John Wall scored a season-high 40 points as the hosts routed the visiting Los Angeles Lakers 128-110 to snap a four-game losing streak. LeBron James had 13 points, his lowest tally against the Wizards.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2018, with the headline 'Denver are no pushovers'. Print Edition | Subscribe