Nikola Jokic scores 20 points, grabs 15 rebund to spark Nuggets win vs. Clippers

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
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DENVER — The Denver Nuggets put an ugly loss behind them with a statement win over a top-tier team.

Nikola Jokic had 20 points and 15 rebounds, and the Nuggets withstood a big rally to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 114-104 on Sunday night.

This bounce-back performance was just what they needed to soothe their psyche after a clunker the night before against a struggling Cleveland squad.

“We looked like a totally different team less than 24 hours later,” guard Monte Morris said.

The moral was easy to decipher: “We have to come to play against teams we’re supposed to beat,” Morris said. “Because we always show up against teams we know that can beat us.”

Trailing by as many 20 points in the second half, Los Angeles had pulled within six with 1:11 remaining when Patrick Beverley was called for a foul on Jokic. After the Nuggets big man made a pair of free throws, Clippers coach Doc Rivers argued with official Nick Buchert. He was given two technical fouls and tossed from the game. Jamal Murray hit both free throws to restore some much-needed breathing room.

“Listen, coaches can lose their composure, so can officials,” Rivers explained. “There’s no way I should have been thrown out of the game.”

Rivers had simply reached his boiling point. He was still seething from a crucial call earlier in the quarter when Montrezl Harrell got whistled for an offensive charge when he stepped in front of Jerami Grant as Grant guarded Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers were in the midst of a 10-0 run at the time.

“The pick was solid,” Rivers said. “The bottom line is I shouldn’t get a tech. That’s No. 1. That’s on me.”

Murray finished with 19 points and reserve Michael Porter Jr. provided a spark by scoring 13 for the Nuggets, who made their last field goal with 6:12 remaining. They went 9 of 10 on free throws from there.

The defensive standout of the game was Grant, who had two big blocks on Leonard.

“A couple of great blocks at the rim you don’t see very often against Kawhi,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Leonard finished with 30 points, while Lou Williams had 26 and Harrell added 25.

The Clippers played without star forward Paul George, who missed a second straight game with a strained left hamstring. Los Angeles dropped to 8-6 this season when George doesn’t play.

This contest marked the first of three between two of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference.

Gary Harris showed signs of breaking out of a shooting slump by scoring 15 points but didn’t play late. He’s been diligently working on his jumper after shooting 25.6% over his last four games. He was 5 of 9 against the Clippers.

“When he makes shots, the guys need to chase him and it’s a little different story,” said Jokic, whose team led by as many as 20 points in the second half.

Denver had quite a sequence midway through the fourth when Will Barton blocked a shot and Jokic grabbed the rebound. He quickly threw it ahead to Barton, who then dished it off to Morris for a 3-pointer. Denver was up 18 and seemingly cruising along before the Clippers made things interesting down the stretch.

“The focus was there. The energy was there,” Jokic said. “It was a big victory for us.”

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Bulls’ Zach LaVine not available via trade

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.