MILWAUKEE – The Nuggets’ best chance of stealing one on the road wore a black jacket and dark pants and never stepped foot on the court for Wednesday’s game.
Nikola Jokic missed the second night of Denver’s back-to-back tending to a sore hamstring, and the Nuggets fell, 107-99, to the Milwaukee Bucks. Jokic warmed up prior to the contest, which suggested the decision to hold him out was more maintenance than injury related.
But regardless of the reasoning, the Nuggets were without their MVP, while Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo bludgeoned his way through Denver’s frontcourt for 33 points and 22 trips to the free-throw line. Now 34-15 overall with another contest Saturday at Philadelphia, Wednesday was the dictionary definition of a schedule loss.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone wasn’t upset with the effort.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our group,” Malone said.
In addition to Jokic, the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray (knee maintenance), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (right wrist sprain) and Michael Porter Jr. (personal reasons).
Still, the Nuggets worked the deficit to only 94-89 with five minutes remaining in the fourth.
Aaron Gordon never stopped competing and finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. His dogged effort kept the Nuggets afloat. So did Bruce Brown, who served as the point guard with Murray out. Brown ended the night with 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Reserve point guard Bones Hyland added 15 points off the bench.
“Everybody contributed,” said Malone while lamenting his team’s 39% shooting overall.
Beyond Antetokounmpo’s brute force, the Nuggets had to contend with Milwaukee’s marksmanship as well. The Bucks buried 13 of 30 3-pointers in pulling away late in the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets are so deep, most nights even capable players can’t get off the bench. But Denver stayed within one possession most of the third quarter thanks to their army of talent. Starting in place of Jokic, Zeke Nnaji made an impact on both ends. He blocked Antetokounmpo, worked the boards and buried a 3-pointer from the wing. Beyond Nnaji, Vlatko Cancar was the quintessential glue guy. He ran the floor hard and kept the offense moving.
Late in the third quarter, the Bucks momentarily distanced themselves. Antetokounmpo caught an alley-oop lob over Ish Smith in a microcosm of the disparity. But Jeff Green’s halfcourt 3-pointer to beat the buzzer meant Denver trailed just 81-73 entering the fourth.
Before the Nuggets’ plane took off Tuesday night, staffers’ phones pinged with a tornado warning in New Orleans. Once they cleared that obstacle, the team arrived early Wednesday morning with a marquee matchup only hours later.
But down so many key players, Malone had to recalibrate his goals.
“Fight, compete,” he said of what he wanted to see prior to the game.
Denver Nuggets’ Bruce Brown looks to shoot past Milwaukee Bucks’ Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Due to the circumstances, that meant highlighting both Nnaji and Christian Braun in the rotation. Serving as both a forward and center, Nnaji’s been a fixture on the court over the last month.
“He’s taken advantage of the opportunity,” Malone said, adding he’s proven he’s worthy of a rotation spot.
Likewise, Braun has incrementally earned Malone’s trust as well. Both featured in the starting lineup as the Nuggets stayed within striking distance, trailing just 58-53 at halftime.
Against a Bucks team that wasn’t missing its stars, it was a commendable showing. Hyland had a team-high 11 points off the bench, and Smith helped orchestrate the offense smoothly. He added eight, with almost all his damage coming in the mid-range. Brown paced the starters with 10 points, and Gordon chipped in nine and ended the half with a resounding sequence of back-to-back blocks.
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Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo is fouled by Denver Nuggets’ Bruce Brown during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 107-99. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)