Denver Nuggets 128, Milwaukee Bucks 97: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

There are wins and then there are statement wins. The Nuggets put the rest of the league on notice with an impressive 128-97 rout over the Bucks in Milwaukee Tuesday.

The Bucks entered the contest tied for the best offensive rating in the league, but couldn’t crack a determined Nuggets’ defense. Undermanned and just over 24 hours after playing the Bulls in Chicago, Denver was relentless from tip-off. The team took a 37-23 lead after the first quarter and never looked back.

"It feels like our locker room is getting smaller and smaller each game, but guys are stepping up," Jamal Murray said. "We're having fun with it." 

Nikola Jokić was as fired up as he’s been in recent memory and finished the night with 37 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds on a sizzling 15 of 23 shooting performance. The Nuggets had six players in double figures, including Jokić, Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Monte Morris, Michael Porter Jr., and P.J. Dozier.

"I think this is definitely up there in terms of best wins of the year," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "This was a quality win against a very good team." 

Milwaukee was led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had 27 points, eight rebounds, and three assists.

The Nuggets finished their season series against the Bucks tied 1-1, sending a message after they suffered a 125-112 loss in the first encounter. The team will now travel to Indianapolis to face the Pacers (6 p.m. MT, ALTITUDE) in its final game before the midseason break.

Here are the takeaways:

A defensive performance to remember

When Michael Porter Jr. got two early fouls in his man-to-man matchup with Antetokounmpo in the first quarter, the Nuggets switched to zone defense. It was a game-changing moment for Denver.

Milwaukee had a 7-2 lead and saw it wither away as the visitors powered through with a 28-14 run. It would be the deciding run of the game as the closest the home team would get was 60-50 late in the second quarter. Denver would lead by as many as 31 and it was off the back of that switch to zone in the first half. In the second half, the team switched back to man-to-man and saw the team continue its success on that end. 

Michael Malone’s team held the Bucks, the NBA’s fourth-best team in three-point percentage, to just 11 of 40 from behind the arc. The Nuggets also did a good job of protecting the paint, holding the Bucks to 32 points inside.

Equally as impressive was how smart Denver played offensively. The team had just 28 assists to just 10 turnovers, surrendering only 10 points off turnovers. This was a brilliant showing and arguably the best win of the first half of the season.

Joker and Blue Arrow dominant

Jokić was animated throughout the entire 48 minutes, this was clearly a game he wanted to win and showcase the Nuggets’ brand of basketball. He was yelling and gesturing on both ends and had three emphatic dunks, an exclamation mark for a player who isn’t known for his bounce out of the gym athleticism. Jokić has 20 dunks already this season, just three away from his previous career-high of 23 set in his breakout sophomore campaign. 

"We joke about it, but it really does to speak to his conditioning, staying in great shape and being disciplined," Malone said. 

As good as Jokić continues to be, the Nuggets are currently on a three-game win streak due to the overall production of their starters and the continued strong play of Jamal Murray. The recently-turned 24-year-old has been searing hot since the start of February and he was almost outer-worldly at times Tuesday. The guard had the highlight of the night with a no-look shovel lay up against Donte DiVincenzo and Antetokounmpo. Murray would finish the night with 24 points and six assists on 10 of 17 shooting.

Will Barton III (14 points), Monte Morris (10), and Michael Porter Jr. (11) once again helped the Nuggets overcome their spate of injuries as they combined for 35 points.

Bench steps up

Jokić called it.

After Vlatko Čančar showed some promise in a career-high 21 minutes against the Bulls Monday, the Nuggets center insisted there’s more to come for the 23-year-old forward. Čančar proved his teammate right with a solid outing against one of the top three teams in the East.

The Slovenian’s numbers might not jump off the stat sheet, he finished with four points and seven boards, but he was a presence defensively – adding two steals. Čančar’s 6-foot-8 frame and recently-added muscle was a boost for the Nuggets, who faced one of the bigger teams in the NBA in Milwaukee.

Čančar’s top moment of the game came on the other end, however. Early in the second quarter, he borrowed a play from his good friend Jokić as dropped a dazzling, no-look dime to Zeke Nnaji.

"Now that I've been playing a little bit more, you get more comfortable on the floor," Čančar said with a grin. "Watching Facu [Facundo Campazzo], I wanted to try it as well. If it was a turnover, I would've probably went on the bench, but the pass went through so everybody was impressed. So it's either you're a hero or a loser. I guess I'm a hero." 

With the Nuggets likely to be shorthanded again in Indianapolis against the Pacers Thursday, Čančar has another chance to make an impression. If he keeps this up, he could give Malone something to think about in regards to playing time in the second half of the season.

Speaking of Nnaji, he also played a factor in the win with a scrappy performance. The first-rounder scored six points and added four boards. He hit a buzzer-beater in the third quarter to keep the Nuggets lead at 19.

Finally, P.J. Dozier continues to trend upward and the Nuggets are undefeated since his return. He finished the contest with 19 points.

"He's a guy who can impact the game on a positive note on both sides of the floor," Malone said of Dozier after the game. "So getting him back healthy, keeping him within his minute restriction, [he] has been really good for us these last three games." 

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