WASHINGTON – The Denver Nuggets are top of the National Basketball Association’s Western Conference, but they know they must not take their foot off the pedal under any circumstance.
On Wednesday, Nikola Jokic scored 31 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and seven assists as the Nuggets held off a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Washington Wizards 118-104, with the hosts suffering their fourth consecutive loss.
It was not only in the last period of the game that they had to toil, but also in the first half when they could not get control and trailed 57-55.
Strong words were said at half-time, mostly from Jamal Murray.
“We needed that,” Jokic said on ESPN of the guard’s words.
“And we know what we needed to do. Because the post-season is going to be really short if we play like we played in the first half.”
Denver coach Michael Malone added: “I challenged our guys in a big way at half-time. The way we played in that first half, that can’t be who we are.”
With the victory, the Nuggets (49-24) concluded their five-game road trip with a winning record at 3-2 and maintained their pace atop the Western Conference, ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies (45-27).
Following their poor first half, they took control in the third quarter with a 16-4 run spanning 3min 7sec, turning a four-point deficit into a quick, eight-point lead.
They only built from there, expanding the advantage to 23 points in the opening moments of the fourth quarter.
Washington (32-41), looking to keep their hopes of qualifying for the Eastern Conference play-in alive, battled back to cut the deficit to 10 points midway through the final period.
But the last rally was quickly squashed when Malone put in starters Jokic and Murray – both of whom he pulled out earlier in the quarter – and Denver went on a 9-2 run.
Murray finished with 17 points, a game-high eight assists and six rebounds. Michael Porter Jr. added 21 points – 18 of which came on six-of-nine shooting from three-point range – and grabbed seven rebounds.
Kristaps Porzingis led Washington with 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting from the floor, while Deni Avdija added 16 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“It’s frustrating, of course, but we can’t control the circumstances,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said of his side’s loss.
“It’s just more, how do we respond to the circumstances? That to me is more important. It’s an indication of who we are collectively and individually.”
Washington came into Wednesday’s contest, the second leg of a back-to-back after losing on Tuesday in Orlando, 2½ games behind the Chicago Bulls for the East’s last play-in berth. REUTERS