DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic is raising another aspect of his game – his voice.
Always a leader by example, he’s now speaking up more.
And his teammates are listening, too.
Jokic scored 28 points, including six in the final two minutes, and dished out 10 assists as the short-handed Denver Nuggets rode a big second-half run to a 106-100 win over the Utah Jazz on Thursday night.
“He always sets the temperature for us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “If he’s getting down, if he’s dejected, that’s going to trickle down to everybody else. I love his positivity, his encouraging guys. That’s impactful, when you have your best player doing that.”
The Nuggets needed a boost. Jokic led the charge, scoring 11 of Denver’s final 12 points.
Trailing 70-61 with 4:13 left in the third, the Nuggets went on a 15-0 spurt to close out the quarter. They continued their roll in the fourth. In all, it was a 27-1 surge – and nearly wasn’t enough.
A 17-point Denver lead was whittled to three before Jokic took over. The big man who just made his second All-Star team hit a pair of free throws, a long jumper and a floater to restore some breathing room.
“To me, this might be our best win of the year,” Malone said.
Jordan Clarkson scored 24 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter for the Jazz on a night when leading scorer Donovan Mitchell was held to four on 1-for-12 shooting. He didn’t get his first basket until there was 4:05 left. Mitchell was selected to his first All-Star Game earlier in the evening.
He gave his defender, Torrey Craig, full credit.
“He made it tough on me,” Mitchell said. “He always does. I can’t sit here and say ‘Oh, I was tired.’ He did his job.”
Craig simply tried to not let Mitchell get on track.
“He’s a great player,” Craig said. “If he gets in a rhythm, it can be hard to stop him.”
This marked the first of four meetings between the Northwest Division rivals. The Nuggets (33-15) moved a game clear of the Jazz (32-16).
Jokic carried the load for a Denver team that was missing Jamal Murray (sprained left ankle), Paul Millsap (bruised left knee), Gary Harris (personal reasons) and Mason Plumlee (right foot). Michael Porter Jr. finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.
Utah center Rudy Gobert had 21 points and 11 rebounds after making his first All-Star team. The Jazz have dropped three straight.
“We stalled for a lot of reasons,” coach Quin Snyder said. “It was difficult for us to attack. I think we have to have more resolve. We’re a team where guys make plays for each other and we weren’t able to create for one another.”
Down by as many as 11 in the third quarter, the Nuggets took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish on a 3-pointer by Porter with 29.1 seconds left in the period. P.J. Dozier followed with a buzzer-beating 3 to end the third and extend the advantage.
“We didn’t quit,” Jokic said.
Jazz: G Mike Conley sat out as part of “injury management” due to right knee soreness. … Joe Ingles and Mitchell each had eight assists.
Nuggets: Craig said he was fine after falling when he tried a dunk attempt and was hit from behind by F George Niang, who was called for a flagrant-1 foul. … Craig had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Ingles was walking off the floor, unrolling the tape around his wrist, when something a fan said caught his attention. They were quickly separated.
LETTER FROM MOM
Mitchell found out he made his first All-Star team through a letter from his mom that he read on the team’s Twitter account. The opening line was, “If you’re reading this letter, it’s because you’re now an All-Star.”
Mitchell laughed and leaned back in his chair as he digested the words. He later called her.
“It’s just one of those things growing up, I didn’t expect to be in the NBA,” Mitchell said. “Such a blessing.”
Malone doesn’t particularly care for this back-to-back – a late game against Utah on Thursday, followed by a trip to Milwaukee to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Friday.
“The back-to-back is criminal,” Malone said. “Our itinerary has us arriving at the hotel at 3:30 (a.m.). The itinerary is never right. We’ll be in after that.
“We can’t change the schedule. Not any of the 30 NBA teams are happy with their schedule, from Game 1 to 82.”
Jazz: At Portland on Saturday. Beat the Trail Blazers 121-115 at home on Dec. 26.
Nuggets: Start a two-game trip Friday in Milwaukee.
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