Michael Porter Jr.

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

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

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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.”

NBA Power Rankings: Everyone still chasing the Bucks, Lakers

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The power rankings took a week off so they could go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve last week, but they’re back — and nothing at the top has changed. It’s still Bucks and Lakers on top.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (32-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe both missed time in the past couple of weeks, and the Bucks just kept right on winning. Milwaukee is on pace to win 69 games and run away with the top slot in the East, but at what point does the franchise start to think about resting Antetokounmpo and others to make sure they are fully rested and healthy heading into the playoffs? It’s a little early for that now, but as we move into the coming weeks it’s something Mike Budenholzer needs to consider.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (29-7, LW No. 4). Anthony Davis had a nasty fall on Tuesday night and has a bruised tailbone. The good news is the MRI came back clean and it’s just a bruise, but expect the Lakers to be without AD’s 27.1 points and 9.4 rebounds a night. Also expect a lot of Kyle Kuzma trade rumors in the coming weeks, but most likely they get Darren Collison out of retirement and he’s a better playmaker than just about anyone they land for Kuzma. Which is to say, don’t expect a trade. Also, the Lakers are ready for some football.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (25-9, LW 2). Dealing with Danny Ainge at the trade deadline should scare teams, he tends to win everything he touches as a GM. For example, that four-year, $107 million Jaylen Brown extension this summer — he has arguably been the most important Celtics player this season and that contract looks like a steal for Boston. The Celtics could use a center that can shoot threes and is more on the age timeline of Brown and Jayson Tatum. That guy may not be available at the deadline. And no, the CBA does not allow Boston to trade to get Aron Baynes back (they could re-sign him next summer).

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (24-12, LW 12). Winners of six in a row and 11-of-12, and in those last dozen games the Jazz have a league-best +8.7 net rating, with the second best offense in the land (the defense is 10th in the league, good, but not what we expected from this team). Donovan Mitchell is at the heart of the offensive resurgence averaging 24.9 points per game on 50% shooting from the floor over his last 10 games — he won’t be a starter, but he should be an All-Star this season in Chicago.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (24-11, LW 5). Russell Westbrook has been more efficient of late because he is getting to the rim more and not settling for the mid-range jump shots defenders are completely willing to give him. Combine Westbrook with Harden, and eventually Eric Gordon, and you have the offense of a contender. However, unless Clint Capela can suddenly turn into a defensive force, the Rockets middle-of-the-pack defense will let them down in the postseason.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (26-12, LW 6). The lack of an identity for these Clippers nearly halfway into the season is a concern for Doc Rivers — he said as much after last Saturday’s ugly loss to Memphis — but this mostly stems from health issues. Rivers has had his full compliment of starters and top four bench players exactly one game this season, and that makes it hard to develop chemistry and continuity. The good news for Rivers: The Clippers have easiest schedule of any team in the West in January.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (25-11, LW 3). There are moments it feels like Michael Porter Jr. is going to break out, like the 19-point game against the Kings or the 25 against the Pacers. But it’s not consistent, the next game after the Pacers he scored just seven and was -16 against Washington (I know single-game plus-minus is flukey, but it illustrates the point here). The Nuggets were counting on him this season, but he’s playing the up-and-down ball of a rookie, as we should have expected of him. The Nuggets have gone 2-2 so far on a five-game road trip that ends in Dallas Wednesday.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (26-11, LW 7). Miami is the luckiest team in the NBA this season. The Heat are outplaying their point differential by four games (via Cleaning the Glass), meaning they have played like a 22-14 team but have gotten lucky. Part of that, Miami is 6-0 in overtime games this season, which involves some luck. Also, teams are getting decent shots and just not hitting them — they have the 10th best eFG% against, but based on the shots they give up that should be 22nd (using Cleaning the Glass’ location eFG% tool). Miami’s a good team, but maybe not as good as their record suggests.

Mavericks small icon 9. Mavericks (23-13, LW 11). LeBron James is impressed with the Dallas bench: “We know not only the season that Luka’s having, but they’ve been successful because of their bench as well. Their bench gives them so much of a push. Luka comes out, KP comes out, their starters come out and their bench seems to rise to the occasion.” The Mavericks are 2-1 halfway through a six-game homestand.

Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (24-13, LW 10). Injuries continue to hobble the Raptors: Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell all missed the Raptors most recent game (a loss to the Trail Blazers. That’s why Toronto is 2-3 in its last five. Nick Nurse has done an impressive coaching job this season, getting young players to step up and veterans to take on larger roles, but if the Raptors are going to be a threat in the East they need to get everyone healthy.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (21-16, LW 13). Chris Paul has been the most clutch player in the NBA this season. CP3 has scored 103 points in clutch minutes this season (the final five minutes of a game within five points), and that’s far and away the most in the league. He is shooting 54.5% in those clutch minutes and has dished out 11 assists as well. Paul was at it again Tuesday night, scoring 20 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, lifting OKC past Brooklyn.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (23-14, LW 8). Victor Oladipo’s return is now targeted for Jan. 29 (this past week he was practicing with the Pacers’ G-League team) — and they could use him. Malcolm Brogdon has been battling back issues which have kept him in and out of the lineup, and the Pacers offense feels the pinch. After a tough game Wednesday night against Miami, the Pacers head out on the road for 7-of-9, and Indy is 8-10 away from home this season.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (24-14, LW 9). Ever since the impressive win against Milwaukee on Christmas Day, the Sixers are 1-4 with a -3.9 net rating, having played rather pedestrian ball on both ends of the court. The offensive issues are not a surprise (Ben Simmons needs to attack the rim in crunch time and stop fearing fouls because of his trouble from the stripe), but it’s the defense that is supposed to keep the Sixers afloat through tough times and that has not impressed lately. Brett Brown has to find a way to get this team out of its malaise.

Magic small icon 14. Magic (17-20, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac in a breakout year for him — he looked like a guy who could make one of the All-Defensive teams at the end of the season — is a real blow. He’s out for two months, which will dent this team’s top-10 defense, but his activity will be missed on offense as well. And Orlando can’t have their offense get any worse if they plan to hold on to one of the last couple of playoff spots in the East.

Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (16-22, LW 15). As disappointing as Portland has been this season — and they are in the running for “most disappointing team in the league — they still sit tied for the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs thanks to the surprisingly soft bottom of the West. However, Portland faces a difficult January schedule, playing a lot of quality offensive teams that will test the Blazers’ bottom 10 defense. The schedule will make it tough to climb the ladder in the West. Well, unless they can get more Carmelo Anthony game-winners.

Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (15-20, LW 17). LaMarcus Aldridge, three-point marksman. Apparently that’s a thing now. In his last five games Aldridge is averaging 4.6 attempts from three a game, a huge leap from the 0.5 attempts a game he made last season, and it doubles the less than two attempts a night from the first 20 games of this season. More amazing, he’s hitting 69.6% from three in the last five games. It could be a rough month in San Antonio the Spurs have toughest schedule in the West in January.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (16-20, LW 14). Kyrie Irving got a shot in his shoulder, hoping to numb the pain so he can get back, but if you listened to the press conference he sounded like a guy who could well be headed for season-ending surgery. That adds to the woes in Brooklyn — the Nets have lost six in a row, and it doesn’t get easier with the Heat and Jazz on the schedule this week (and it actually gets tougher the week after that).

Kings small icon 18. Kings (14-23, LW 18). The three players the Kings are counting on to be their core — De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Buddy Hield — have played a total of 49 minutes together this season due to injuries. Kings fans can blame Luke Walton because their team went from one of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA last season to one of the slowest, but it’s tough to judge his performance without the players the Kings need healthy enough to play. The Kings had the league’s worst record over the last 10 years but have started the new decade winning 3-of-4.

Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (16-22, LW 22). Ja Morant is the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, but more than that he can be a cornerstone for Memphis to build around (probably with Jaren Jackson Jr.). Morant is incredibly fluid, his trust in his shot is growing, and he is fearless — more than once on Saturday Kawhi Leonard got switched onto him and Morant went right at him (with mixed results). Morant is also walking highlight reel and has become must-watch League Pass viewing.

20. Timberwolves (14-22, LW 28). Karl-Anthony Towns remains sidelined with a sprained knee (11 games and counting), but the Timberwolves have found some spark and have won 3-of-5 without him. This remains a team to watch at the trade deadline, with Robert Covington still drawing interest from teams. Also, stop with the Towns trade talk, that is not happening, he may be frustrated with the losing, but that’s different than going Anthony Davis and forcing his way out. Plus, in the first year of a five-year extension, everyone wants to find a way to make this work.

Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (13-24, LW 19). Chicago’s defense is tied for fifth best in the NBA this season (they have the same defensive rating as the stacked Sixers), but that hasn’t translated into wins because of their 28th-ranked offense. Still, the Bulls have the net rating of a 16-21 team (which would have them half-a-game out of the playoffs). The Bulls have lost four straight against some of the league’s better teams, but the schedule does soften up going forward.

Suns small icon 22. Suns (14-22, LW 23). Devin Booker is on fire, having scored at least 30 points in seven straight games, setting a new franchise record (Charles Barkley had held it at five games). Phoenix is 3-4 in those games seven games, and Booker has lifted their offense up to middle of the pack). He’s not going to be a starter, but Booker should travel to Chicago next month to play in his first All-Star game as a reserve.

Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (15-24, LW 21). Devonte' Graham is the clear early frontrunner to win Most Improved Player this season, he is averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a game. He deserves the award, but it is all fueled by the three-ball — almost 60% of his shot attempts come from deep. To take the next step, Graham has to become a better scorer inside the arc and in he paint. Just look at his shot chart for the season.

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (12-25, LW 27). Derrick Favors has been the guy at the heart of New Orleans winning 5-of-7, with him on the floor they are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. The Pelicans just look like a different team when he plays. The Pelicans are a top-10 defense in the last 10 games thanks to Favors and a scheme where they now drop their bigs back to protect the paint on pick-and-rolls. No word yet on Zion Williamson’s return, but it should be soon. Or, at least soonish.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (14-24, LW 20). Blake Griffin had surgery to clean up issues in his knee, and while no official timetable has been given it would be a surprise to see him back this season. That will add to the growing buzz around an Andre Drummond trade, which seems to be more and more likely at the deadline. The silver lining in the Griffin injury is that it clears the way for more Sekou Doumbouya, who has started to look like the future of that franchise.

Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (12-24, LW 24). It’s a “what actually happened to the passengers on flight 828” level
mystery — in the past week a Wizards team without Bradley Beal or Thomas Bryant or
Rui Hachimura or Davis Bertans or John Wall have beaten the Heat, Nuggets, and Celtics. Why? How? Some things are just better left unexplained.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (10-26, LW 29). Marcus Morris scoring 38 points against the Clippers on Sunday almost felt like an audition for playoff teams watching — “look, I can help you against elite teams.” The Knicks were competitive in that game, as they have been against some other top teams of late, and New York is 6-9 with Mike Miller as the interim coach. They are at least competing.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (10-27, LW 25). Kevin Love is clearly unhappy — even if the way he is venting it on the court is not the most professional of moves — and wants to be traded. It’s just hard to see that coming together thanks to him being in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract extension. Love still brings value on the court, but not at the level he’s being paid, and that has team balking when it comes to making a trade. Still, the rumors are flying around.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (8-29, LW 30). Trae Young is going to be an All-Star this year, and if the fans get their way he will start (he led East guards after the first round of fan voting). While we can talk about his lack of defense or how he needs to grow to be the kind of guy who can lead a team deep in the playoffs, Young is a walking highlight reel and that’s what you want at the glorified exhibition that is the All-Star game.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (9-29 LW 26). The focus in the Bay Area has turned to the next draft, understandably, with some calls for the Warriors to get a center or rim-protecting big, wherever they end up picking. That’s the wrong strategy. If James Wiseman falls in your lap, great, but take the best player on the board. Try to draft for position and you end up saying things like “we don’t need to draft Luka Doncic we have De’Aaron Fox” or “we don’t need to draft Michael Jordan, we have Clyde Drexler.” Take the best player and work the rest out later.

Nikola Jokic scores career-high 47, Denver picks up road win in Atlanta

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ATLANTA — Nikola Jokic scored a career-high 47 points, Will Barton added a season-best 28 and the Denver Nuggets held off the Atlanta Hawks 123-115 on Monday night.

The Nuggets, coming off a surprising loss at Washington two nights earlier, have won four of six to improve to 25-11, second-best in the Western Conference. Atlanta, worst in the NBA at 8-29, has dropped 11 of 13.

Trae Young finished with 29 points and Kevin Huerter had 22 for the Hawks.

Jokic surpassed his previous career high of 41 points with a putback that gave Denver a 114-109 lead with 3:14 remaining.

Jamal Murray followed with a turnaround jumper in the lane and Barton put back his own miss to put the Nuggets up 118-109 at the 1:57 mark.

That essentially ended all hopes for the Hawks, but it wasn’t entirely easy for Denver.

After John Collins’ dunk cut the lead to 91-88 just 22 seconds into the fourth quarter, Nuggets coach Michael Malone called a timeout. But then Monte Morris followed with a runner and Michael Porter Jr. jammed in a putback to make it 95-88.

The Hawks cut the margin to one before Barton found Morris for an alley-oop and hit a 3-pointer to make it 106-100 with 6:54 remaining. Atlanta pulled within two on Young’s 35-footer with 4:24 remaining, and Malone called another timeout. The move worked as the Hawks made just three field goals the rest of the way.

Huerter’s second straight 3 cut the lead to two at the 6:07 mark of the third, and Malone called a timeout. Jokic quickly followed with a jumper, then stole the ball in the lane from Alex Len to set up Murray’s two free throws.

Jerami Grant’s three-point play made it 36-34 at the 9:37 mark of the second, and the Nuggets didn’t trail again. About three minutes later, Grant rebounded a missed Hawks shot and drove for a layup that gave Denver its first double-digit lead.

Murray’s layup in the final second put the Nuggets up by nine at halftime.

Three Things to Know: Has Michael Porter Jr. arrived in Denver?

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Has Micahel Porter Jr. arrived in Denver? If so, he may be stretch four the team needs. Just a few weeks back, during the G-League showcase event in Las Vegas, executives from a lot of teams expected the Nuggets to be buyers at the trade deadline. At the top of Denver’s list of needs was a stretch four to put next to Nikola Jokic. The kind of player who could score an efficient 25 points, getting buckets in the paint on bunny hooks or stepping out to the arc and nailing threes…

Exactly like the game Michael Porter Jr. had for the Nuggets Thursday night against a good Pacers team.

Going into the season, there was a lot of “Michael Porter Jr. will be the difference” talk coming out of Denver, a team largely banking on continuity this season. Porter had looked like a steal at No. 14 in the 2018 draft, but back surgery and some reports of a “diva” attitude had him sliding down the draft board. The big question with Porter was, what would he look like healthy? The man has battled two back surgeries, nerve issues in his foot, and a knee sprain. However, after sitting out last season, he was ready to go this season and… nothing. His jump shot was a mess, his defense was that of a rookie, and coach Michael Malone was stingy with the minutes. Porter made little impact on the Nuggets through the first third of the season, other than to have them taking a hard look at Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Love in the trade market.

Then Porter dropped 19 on Sacramento a few nights ago, which caught people’s attention. His corner threes, then the rest of his jumpers, started falling. On Thursday night in Indiana, Porter Jr. was the player Nuggets fans had hoped for and the team has needed — a difference-maker and versatile player at the four.

If Porter can continue with and build off that kind of performance it changes the calculous for Denver. The Nuggets are 24-10 and the two seed in the West, but despite the early wins their play was not striking fear in the hearts of opponents. Lately, however, Nikola Jokic looks like himself again (he played his way into shape?), the defense is improved this season, and with Porter is playing like the missing piece they need things feel different in Denver (they have won 10-of-12).

It’s too early to say Porter Jr. has arrived in Denver, we’re just talking two good games. But if he has, if this is going to be the new norm and not a fluke career night form Porter, the Nuggets start to look a lot more dangerous.

2) Something to watch: Paul George left Clippers win with a hamstring injury. The Clippers had little trouble with a shorthanded Detroit team Thursday night in a game that followed form and was not particularly worth noting except for one thing:

Paul George left the game in the second quarter not to return due to “hamstring tightness.”

The Clippers were up by six at the half and about to get serious and take over the game, there was no reason to risk anything and play George in the second half. So they didn’t. After the game, George was not showing a limp, reports Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN. That’s a good sign.

Maybe it’s nothing. Hopefully, for the sake of fans of the game, it’s nothing. But hamstrings are the kind of things that linger if not treated, so this just becomes something to watch with the Clippers and one of their two stars.

3) The first round of NBA All-Star fan voting is in, so who will the starters be? As they should, NBA fans get the largest say in who should start the NBA All-Star Game. It’s an exhibition game to promote the league, so give the fans who they want… unless it’s Zaza Pachulia. After a coordinated effort to make him the starting center in the NBA showcase game a few years ago (a lot of that out of his native Georgia), the league added a media and player vote components to make sure nothing like that happens again. Which means it’s cute that this year fans cast a lot of ballots for Alex Caruso and Tacko Fall, but they will not start.

So who will start? Let’s break down the early returns from fan voting a little and project forward with what the media and players likely do.

Here are the Western Conference starters as voted by the fans: Luka Doncic (Dallas), James Harden (Houston), LeBron James (LA Lakers), Anthony Davis (LA Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers).

I doubt that five changes. In the backcourt, Doncic is the leading vote getter in the West and second-place Harden is more than 500,000 votes ahead of third-place Damian Lillard. That’s not changing with the media/player votes. It’s basically the same in the frontcourt, where Leonard has a massive lead over teammate Paul George for the third starting spot. The media and players likely vote in the same five. This group is pretty much a lock.

The East is another story. The Eastern Conference starters as voted by the fans: Trae Young (Atlanta), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia), Pascal Siakam (Toronto).

I could argue that, as entertaining as Young is as a player, he’s the leader of a 7-win team and doesn’t deserve to start the All-Star Game. Except, who is going to replace him? Second-leading vote getter Kyrie Irving has missed too much time to do well in the media and player votes, so if Boston fans don’t push Kemba Walker into a starting role (he’s nearly tied with Irving already), the press will put Kemba in as a stater again. After that, could the media/player votes push Ben Simmons or Bradley Beal far enough up the ladder to start in front of Young? Maybe, but most likely the Hawks guard holds down his spot.

In the East frontcourt, Antetokounmpo and Embiid are locks. Will the media/player vote push Jimmy Butler past Siakam? Maybe. It will be close. While one could make a case Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo should play in the game, neither are starters.

Still, expect some shifts in the starters in the East by the time the players get announced for the game at the end of the month.

Michael Porter Jr. gets start, scores career-high 19 (VIDEO)

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There was a lot of Michael Porter Jr. hype coming out of Denver before the season. On a team banking largely on continuity, he was going to be the difference, the high-ceiling rookie who sat out last season but could play a growing role for the Nuggets this season.

It hasn’t worked out that way, Porter has played a limited role and had little impact on the Nuggets. However, on Sunday night, with Paul Millsap and Gary Harris out injured, Porter Jr. got the start.

He responded with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting, and he played a career-high 26 minutes against Sacramento.

Porter Jr. got most of his buckets in the paint.

Maybe this is the breakthrough, the moment that Porter does start to influence games for the Nuggets. One game with 19 points is just that until we see it replicated.

But this is a strong outing and a good start.