MILWAUKEE — Handed a box score in the locker room, Nikola Jokic skimmed over the stats, crumpled up the piece of paper and casually under-hand tossed it onto the floor.
With a garbage-time 3-pointer, the Nuggets extended an impressive streak Monday night — but there was nothing impressive about their performance in a 112-95 loss to the Bucks at Fiserv Forum.
Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated with 36 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. He scored his first 26 in the first half and shot 14 of 19 to avenge Milwaukee’s recent loss at Ball Arena, which debuted the Bucks’ Doc Rivers era.
Meanwhile, Collin Gillespie’s three with 48 seconds left ensured that Denver avoided consecutive 20-point losses for the first time in the Jokic and Michael Malone era. It was a 28-point game entering the fourth quarter.
“Shots are gonna go in and out. That’s the nature of it,” Malone said after Denver’s 38% night from the field. “Right now we’ve got a lot of tired guys not knocking down open shots. But if you’re not making shots, that’s when it’s imperative that you find a way to get stops. And obviously, we didn’t do that at a good enough level tonight. … Back-to-back games where our offense is struggling and our defense did not help at all.”
The Nuggets (36-18) have one more game before the All-Star break — a home rematch with the Kings after a 135-106 rout in Sacramento last Friday.
Jokic amassed 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists on 25 shots. But he turned it over five times, part of an uncharacteristic stretch of sloppy team-wide basketball dating back to their 20-turnover game in Sacramento. Malone wasn’t concerned about the mistakes Friday, noting that Denver is one of the best teams in the NBA at protecting the ball. After eight first-half turnovers in Milwaukee, the Nuggets cleaned it up in the second half more.
“I had a couple of looks, and then I kind of didn’t have them, and then I kind of forced it a little bit,” Jokic said. “But that’s part of the game. … They were getting open looks. We turned the ball over. They were just running in transition, and that’s the easy points.”
There were several instances in the first half of Jokic hesitating on the perimeter after eyeing shots or passes that he wanted to attempt. He was more indecisive than usual.
“Maybe overthinking,” he said. “Maybe you’re open in one moment, and then you see something, and then it’s just probably overthinking.”
Aaron Gordon added 14 points, seven rebounds and a pair of blocks, but the other three Nuggets starters combined for 15 points on 19 shot attempts before they started dropping like flies. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who missed Friday’s game due to right hamstring tightness, exited in the second quarter for the same reason and didn’t return, replaced by Justin Holiday. Then Reggie Jackson started the second half at point guard as Jamal Murray sat the rest of the night with bilateral tibia inflammation.
Murray told Malone late in the first half that he wasn’t feeling great but wanted to finish the half and then decide whether it was smart to play. Malone didn’t have updates on either player, but he was not concerned about long-term injury potential.
This game appeared early to be following a similar template to the matchup between these teams in Denver two weeks earlier: an early double-digit lead for the Bucks, erased by the end of the first quarter by the surging Nuggets. Turns out, the only problem for Milwaukee was Antetokounmpo’s absence. He picked up two quick fouls and had to go to the bench six minutes into the game. Denver had fallen behind 13-2, then it answered with a 16-3 run for the lead. Damian Lillard also got his second foul, and Rivers wasted his challenge on a lost cause.
The Nuggets seemed positioned to attack the 2021 champions with physicality. Instead, they looked sluggish.
In Sacramento, Malone reaffirmed his confidence in a second unit consisting of Murray, Jackson, Christian Braun, Peyton Watson and DeAndre Jordan. The lineup had one of its worst stretches Monday. It took 3:39 for Denver to make a shot from the field after Jokic checked out for the first time with 14 points late in the first quarter. In a 4:29 rest stint, the Bucks outscored the Nuggets 15-3.
Then Jokic mercifully returned, only to turn it over on the next possession. Bobby Portis turned it into a fast-break dunk. The Bucks led 18-0 in transition points at halftime, punishing the Nuggets with a foot-race after every missed shot.
First appeared on www.denverpost.com