Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets made a statement Saturday, downing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks 129-106 in a battle of NBA conference leaders.
In a game touted as a potential NBA Finals preview, two-time and reigning NBA MVP Jokic scored 31 points, handed out 11 assists and pulled down six rebounds and the Nuggets held East leaders Milwaukee to 40 second-half points with the kind of dominant defensive display they’ve been accused of lacking this season.
Jamal Murray, who made five three-pointers and scored 26 points for Denver, said it all started on the defensive end — and not just in a third quarter in which the Nuggets out-scored the Bucks 34-19.
“I thought we played great defense all game,” Murray said.
“We had a good start, even though they went on a run I thought we were consistent all game with our defense and we found transition points.”
Antetokounmpo, who won MVP honors for two straight years before Jokic, scored 31 points, but just seven in the second half.
He was a force at the rim before the interval, finishing with five dunks, although the dunk that reverberated through Ball Arena was 36-year-old Nuggets veteran Jeff Green’s slam over Antetokounpo to open the fourth quarter.
The Bucks’ frustration was evident as the Nuggets pulled away in the third, with Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez both receiving technical fouls.
Antetokounmpo was whistled for a technical foul midway through the fourth quarter.
“They just had us in the second half,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, whose team was coming off a lopsided victory in Salt Lake City in a tough high-altitude back-to-back.
The third quarter was pivotal in Miami, where the Brooklyn Nets out-scored the Heat 39-18 in the period, on the way to a 129-100 victory that moved them past Miami and into sixth place in the East.
Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, Cam Johnson scored 23 and Spencer Dinwiddie chipped in 15 for Brooklyn, who snapped a five-game losing streak to at least temporarily put themselves in position for direct entry to the playoffs.
Max Strus scored 23 points off the bench for Miami, but was scoreless in the second half. Tyler Herro scored 23, but the Heat had no answer as the Nets started warming up late in the second quarter.
Down by double digits early, the Nets cut the deficit to four at halftime and held Miami to 31 second-half points.
– Categorically outplayed –
Their 31-6 scoring run in the third quarter pushed them to a 104-87 lead going into the final period.
“We took a punch from them early on the road, we didn’t flinch, which was good,” said Nets coach Jacque Vaughn. “That third quarter was pretty impressive on both ends of the floor.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said his team’s troubles started long before the third quarter.
“We just got categorically outplayed tonight,” Spoelstra concluded.
The Atlanta Hawks maintained their hold on eighth place in the East with a 143-130 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
The Hawks held on for the victory after guard Trae Young was ejected during a timeout in the third quarter after he launched a ball at the referee.
He’d been frustrated after he was called for an offensive foul on a long three-point shot, officials ruling he kicked his leg out as Pacers guard Aaron Nesmith tried to defend the shot.
The turnover led to a three-pointer from Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton that knotted the score at 84-84 with 7:30 to play in the third.
Atlanta pulled away to lead by seven going into the fourth, pushing the lead to as much as 18.
John Collins scored 21 points to lead eight Hawks players in double figures.