Nuggets survive wild finish vs. Spurs, extend winning streak to eight

Nikola Jokic might as well be coach Michael Malone’s security blanket. With the game on the line, there’s arguably no one better.

The MVP frontrunner did it again Friday night, staving off a furious San Antonio comeback to hang on, 121-119, and extend the Nuggets’ winning streak to eight. The Spurs, down 11 points with less than four minutes remaining, stormed back to make it a one-point game with 10 seconds left. After Michael Porter Jr. made one of his two free throws, the Nuggets survived a frenetic chase to the Spurs’ basket where San Antonio couldn’t convert on multiple close looks.

“In those situations, the clock moves so slow,” Malone said. “It is like watching a movie, and I was just waiting for the buzzer to sound before the ball went through the hoop. … Feel really fortunate to pull this win out. … But, yeah, this is a little bit of a stressful job.”

The Nuggets, now 34-18 overall, have won 17 of their last 20 games. With 69 points in the second half, the Spurs came as close as anyone to snapping Denver’s streak.

Jokic, with his 13th triple-double of the season, was at the heart of nearly everything they did in the fourth quarter. Whether it was facilitating, scoring or even simply screening, Jokic’s presence was invaluable. He finished with 26 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds in yet another MVP-caliber performance.

“It’s amazing to watch,” Porter said of Jokic’s fourth quarter.

Porter finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, while reserve Monte Morris added 21 points off the bench. He and Facu Campazzo handled point guard duties, as Jamal Murray missed his third consecutive game with right knee soreness.

The Nuggets will test their eight-game winning streak Sunday vs. Boston.

The Spurs spent the first half of the third quarter exposing Denver’s driving lanes and whittling what was once a double-digit lead. San Antonio cut it all the way to 79-78 before the Nuggets buckled down defensively with engagement and strong contests.

On the other end, Jokic became more assertive, imposing his will inside and dictating the flow of the offense. Jokic’s chin-up jam energized the unit, while P.J. Dozier and Morris both finished a handful of momentum buckets. Morris drained back-to-back 3-pointers late in the third quarter to re-establish a comfortable 96-83 lead entering the final frame.

Before the game, Malone lauded the growth he’d seen from Porter throughout the season.

“He’s been incredible for us this year,” Malone said. “You look at the numbers that he’s been putting up, and how efficiently he’s doing it, it’s truly remarkable.”

In the 25 games prior to Friday night, Porter was averaging 18.5 points on 49% 3-point shooting, along with 8.6 rebounds a game. Aside from his outstanding shooting, Malone noted the strides he’s made defensively, both from an individual and a team concept.

Even though the Nuggets have surged up the standings the last few weeks, Malone was still concerned with complacency.

“The greatest challenge that we have right now is not getting bored with success and not allowing bad habits to creep in,” he said, citing diminished effort levels of his team’s recent hustle stats. “As I told our team, I love winning. But as we go along, it’s not just winning a regular-season game that we’re building for. We went into this season talking about trying to win a championship. So if that’s our goal, we have to hold ourselves accountable.”

The Nuggets’ offense fired on all cylinders Friday night, highlighting Denver’s ball movement and unselfishness. Their 61-50 halftime lead was a product of 20 assists on 23 made baskets.

If it wasn’t for a handful of unforced errors in the second quarter, that lead would’ve ballooned before the break.

As it was, Jokic was near unstoppable again. He finished the first half with 12 points and seven assists, while Porter added 12 points and seven rebounds. Both players knocked down two 3-pointers as part of the Nuggets’ 3-point assault. As a team, they connected on 10-of-18 from distance in the first half.

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