Nuggets fall to Kings, again, despite Nikola Jokic’s third triple-double of the season

Perhaps the late night and early morning finally caught up with the Denver Nuggets.

After storming back from a double-digit deficit to take the lead, the Nuggets looked like an exhausted team at the end of Tuesday’s 125-115 loss at Sacramento. Their first back-to-back of the season also coincided with their first road trip. That they had to battle the Kings without guard Jamal Murray, who missed the game with an elbow contusion, only made their task more challenging.

“I would say good teams don’t beat themselves, but that’d be giving us a compliment I don’t think we deserve right now,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “We’re not a very good team at the moment.”

Malone fixated on the 20 turnovers which led to 37 points for Sacramento. Similar to their other two losses, he also couldn’t see beyond an “embarrassing” second quarter which saw the Kings score 42 points.

Still, center Nikola Jokic authored his third triple-double in four games, finishing with 26 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. After tying Fat Lever’s franchise record on Monday, Jokic’s 44th career triple-double gave him the team’s all-time record. The only blemish on Jokic’s stellar night? A team-high 10 turnovers in the Nuggets’ second loss to the Kings this season.

“Unacceptable,” Malone said of his franchise center.

Without Murray, Jokic’s primary sidekick became Michael Porter Jr., who dropped in 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting. Far from a one-trick pony, Porter also grabbed 10 boards, making good on a challenge from his head coach.

But the Nuggets, now 1-3, were done in by their miscues. By the time the fourth quarter came around, the Kings forced seven more turnovers to all but squelch any comeback attempt. Sacramento outscored Denver 29-15 in the fourth as their energy withered.

Backup point guard Monte Morris added 24 points and four assists. Sacramento’s speedy guard De’Aaron Fox paced the Kings with 24 points and 10 assists.

Down 78-64 minutes into the third quarter, it looked like the Nuggets had already buried themselves with another disinterested stretch. Yet from there, Denver’s defense looked connected. There were denials, strong closeouts, sound rebounding and several resounding blocks that fueled a riveting 25-5 run. It was the epitome of defense to offense, Denver’s pride kicking in before their offense flowed to its potential.

Amid the defensive burst, Jokic and Porter lit up the Kings’ defense. Together, they torched Sacramento for 31 of Denver’s 38 points in the quarter, including four 3-pointers. By the time the Kings had regrouped, the Nuggets had flipped a 14-point deficit into a 100-96 lead going into the fourth.

Malone attributed last season’s stellar 8-3 record on the second night of back-to-backs to their attitude. Even when excuses were readily available, in general, his team didn’t use them.

That didn’t make Tuesday’s scenario any easier.

“It took forever to get off the ground (Monday) for whatever reason,” he said of his team’s first road trip. “With the bad weather, getting to the airport, de-icing. You get in late, you want to give guys a chance to sleep in, but then you’ve gotta get everybody up to get tested and cleared before you can meet as a team, or receive treatments, or meet as a staff.”

After showing around 15 clips from Monday’s win over Houston, he conceded the rest of the day was about mental recovery before Tuesday night.

“Not giving in to all the mental pitfalls of a back-to-back,” Malone said. “To me, that’s the most important factor.”

But the first half against Sacramento revealed an alarmingly short memory. The Kings plastered the Nuggets for 42 points in the second quarter en route to a 74-62 halftime lead. Sacramento torched the 3-point arc and bullied their way to the free throw line. The Kings knocked down 11-of-18 3-pointers over the first two quarters, led by 18 points from Marvin Bagley.

Without Murray, Denver relied even more heavily on Jokic, who posted 10 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the first half.

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