TORONTO • Ask any neutral observer which National Basketball Association team would top the Western Conference standings after a quarter into the regular season and the overwhelming pick would have been the Golden State Warriors as the two-time defending champions.
Yet it is the Denver Nuggets (16-7) that head the West alongside the Los Angeles Clippers after a six-game winning streak that has been powered off the back of Nikola Jokic.
On Monday night, in a battle of the West's best against the East's best, Jokic and his Nuggets teammates showed they have what it takes to end their play-off drought dating back to 2012 after an eye-catching 106-103 road win over the Toronto Raptors (20-5).
The victory at the Scotiabank Arena, which snapped the home team's eight-game winning run, was all the more impressive as it came despite the Nuggets suffering an early blow when their third-highest scorer, Gary Harris, had to leave the game after just nine minutes.
ESPN later reported that the starting guard, who had just returned from a two-game absence with an ankle injury and is averaging 16.6 points this term, suffered a groin injury, with the Nuggets awaiting the results of a medical scan to determine its seriousness.
Although Nuggets coach Michael Malone called Harris' premature exit a "big loss", Jokic picked up the scoring slack to record his 18th career triple-double with 23 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds.
The Serb's feat moved him up to second on the all-time list for triple-doubles from centres, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17) to sit behind Wilt Chamberlain (77).
Jamal Murray, the Nuggets' leading scorer with 17.3 points per game, added 21 and he later hailed Jokic, who is averaging 16.7 points, for his ability to "do everything".
The guard jokingly told ESPN: "He passes, rebounds, handles the ball. There's nothing that he can't do, except jump."
Raptors coach Nick Nurse, whose team were paced by 27 points from Kawhi Leonard, admitted they had no answer for Jokic, saying: "I was kind of hoping we'd be able to disrupt him with a little bit more pressure.
"He just seemed to handle it. We worked hard on him, we tried to put him under some duress with the ball, but it just didn't faze him."
In Atlanta, the Warriors' "Big Three" combined for 85 points, as Steve Kerr's team broke their two-game losing streak with a 128-111 win against the Hawks.
Stephen Curry scored 30 as Golden State improved to 5-7 on the road and 16-9 overall, while Atlanta dropped to 5-19.