Typically a tad gruff, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone allowed for a moment Monday that even he described as “corny.” It came in the wake of his squad snapping a six-game losing streak with a 120-111 triumph over the Miami Heat.
Reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic returned from an injury-induced four-game hiatus to help rescue Denver from its longest skid in almost six years, ripping a shorthanded Miami Heat team for 17 points in the first half on the way to 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Nuggets captured their first victory since November 14. Rookie Nah’shon “Bones” Hyland only enhanced the good vibes in his own return from a two-game absence, scoring a career-high 19 points off the bench for a Nuggets squad mired in injury, sitting at ninth in the West on the first leg of a seven-game road trip.
“I don’t know if relief is the right word, but there was definitely some joy, some smiles, some hugs,” Malone said of the postgame locker room. “As corny as that sounds, man, winning is a great pain reliever. We’ve all been down in the dumps and to get this win tonight kind of just stops all of that and allows us to get back to feeling good about ourselves.”
It also provides somewhat of a respite from feelings of despair as a result of this season’s onslaught of injuries. Already missing Jamal Murray (knee), P.J. Dozier (knee), and JaMychal Green (elbow), Denver received more bad news on the injury front Monday when multiple reports surfaced saying forward Michael Porter Jr. will undergo surgery on his lower back with an uncertain timetable for recovery.
At least for one night, though, Denver pushed those thoughts to the back burner.
Jokic certainly did his part to make that possible.
“Let’s be honest: this whole team is kind of built around Nikola,” Malone said. “He’s the focal point and centerpiece of our offense, and the same can be said for our defense. So, while he was out, we struggled. I think that happens on any team when you take out an MVP.”
When you put him back, though, it’s easy to see how Denver could sweep the two-game season series against the Miami Heat for a second straight year. With Jokic back in the fold, the Nuggets dished a season-high 32 assists on 43 made field goals, shooting season-highs from the field (58.1%) and 3-point range (51.4%) as seven players scored in double figures in Jokic, Hyland, Aaron Gordon (20 points), Will Barton (14), Jeff Green (12), Monte Morris (11) and Facundo Campazzo (10).
Jokic counted them up while glancing at the box score sitting at the postgame lectern.
“It was a good energy, especially after six losses and we played good today,” he said. “I think that was the most important thing. Everybody played well. We had seven players in double-figures. So, everybody shared the ball. Everybody touched it.”
The same couldn’t be said for Miami, playing without Jimmy Butler (tailbone), Tyler Herro (soreness) and Markieff Morris (neck), who hasn’t touched the floor since his Nov. 8 dustup with Jokic, which resulted in a suspension for the Denver center and a fine for the Heat forward. With a weakened supporting cast, Bam Adebayo put up 24 points and 13 rebounds for Miami, pouring in 15 points in the third quarter.
Jokic admitted he hasn’t talked to Morris since the Nov. 8 incident, and Miami fans cascaded boos upon the Denver center every time he touched the ball.
That didn’t stop the Nuggets from embarking on a 12-0 run in the second quarter, on the way to building a 63-43 lead at intermission, sparked by Jokic, Green and Hyland combining for 26 of Denver’s 31 points in that frame. Hyland shot 3-for-4 from deep in the second quarter and finished the game 5-for-8 from range.
The Nuggets now own a record of 4-0 when Hyland hits double digits in scoring.
“Man, it felt good just going into the locker room [after the game],” Hyland said. “You saw smiles and faces and the energy that we had when we first started the season. So, to come back in that locker room and see everybody smiling, it felt good. [Jokic] being back, it’s a team now. Playing through him, it felt good for sure.”
Jokic left the game suffering no ill effects from the sprained wrist that sidelined him for four games, saying “it’s healed.”
The question now is whether Denver (10-10) can successfully rebound from losing six of its last 10 outings against a crowded field in the Western Conference. The club’s road trip resumes Wednesday at Orlando, before the Nuggets face the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls on December 4 and December 6. From there, Denver heads to New Orleans for a matchup against the Pelicans, before closing the trip with games against the San Antonio Spurs on December 9 and December 11.
“Our mentality never changes. That’s something we’ve prided ourselves on for years,” Malone said. “We’ve had a ton of injuries. This is the first time we’ve had to play without Nikola, which is a little bit different. But, no Jamal Murray, no P.J. Dozier, no Michael Porter Jr. for the foreseeable future.
“I love the guys in the locker room. I’ll go to war with them. Obviously, tonight was just one win. But after losing six in a row, by no means have we said, ‘We’re gonna change our goals now.’ There’s 62 games left, so much basketball to be played. So, you move on and play another day.”
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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