ATLANTA — Even MVPs need a little affirmation from their coaches sometimes, maybe. Or maybe the Nuggets’ last two games were just a brief glitch in the cheat code that is Nikola Jokic.
After Jokic’s second consecutive poor shooting night Friday in Denver, Michael Malone checked on his star center “to make sure that he is not losing any confidence — which knowing him, I know he won’t,” Malone said. “But I want to make sure he’s not.”
That conversation might as well represent the overall state of the defending NBA champs after a rare three-game losing streak. Jokic, Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray have all faced setbacks or slumps early this season, but the full trio briefly resembled its 2023 playoff form Monday night during a 129-122 Nuggets win over the Hawks at State Farm Arena.
Jokic bounced back from his 18-for-58 shooting stretch with an efficient 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks. Gordon, whose scoring has been down at 12.5 points per game entering Atlanta, was in full battering ram mode en route to 17 points and 12 boards. Murray, in his third game back from injury, shined the most with 29 points and nine rebounds, sinking key 3s as Atlanta tried to erase a 20-point deficit late.
“I think the way we played, that’s what makes me a little bit more happy,” Jokic said. “Just, we played the way we are usually playing. And that’s what makes me happy. Of course, a win is a great thing, but the way we played today, that’s how we need to play the rest of the season.”
The trio combined to shoot 28 for 38 from the field, led by Murray’s 12-for-15 night.
“I love when Jamal rebounds,” Malone said. “That to me shows that he’s aggressive, and he’s impacting the game across the board. He’s still on a minutes restriction, so to only play him 29 minutes, I was really happy about that. And to see what he did in those 29 minutes was pretty incredible.”
But for the Nuggets (15-9) to snap their skid and pick up their sixth road win of 2023-24, they needed a spark from a rookie. That’s what Julian Strawther seems to be best at. Denver trailed by as many as 11 in a defensively lackluster first half, but the late first-round pick led a comeback going into halftime with one of his increasingly recognizable heat-check games. Strawther made his first five 3-point attempts to score 19 of his 22 points in 16 first-half minutes, also providing much-needed defensive energy with four of his five steals coming before the intermission. He also won the defensive player of the game chain.
“His activity and not being hugged up, being in the right position, helping and forcing turnovers where we can get out and run … that’s so encouraging,” Malone said.
Out of one Denver timeout during the rally, Strawther scored driving via a designed dribble handoff from Michael Porter Jr., staggering again with the second unit. In their first possession after another timeout later in the quarter, the Nuggets drew up a Jokic handoff that resulted in the rookie’s fifth 3-pointer.
“(The coaches) have so much belief in me,” Strawther said, “and they’ve consistently shown me that if I have it going, they’ll let me rock.”
Denver was also on the receiving end of technical foul free throws this time, three days after mounting frustration with officiating resulted in a Murray ejection. Atlanta star point guard Trae Young was thrown out of the game when he received two swift technicals late in the third, as the Hawks were attempting to slowly climb back. Without Young, they closed the gap to five with 32 seconds left as Denver got haphazard with the ball and sloppy defending the perimeter. Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 40 on a remarkable 10-of-17 outside shooting.
Jokic and Gordon did most of their work bullying Atlanta’s front court in the paint. When they sat, Zeke Nnaji was back in the lineup as Denver’s backup center after Malone opted for DeAndre Jordan four consecutive games. Nnaji’s 12 minutes were largely productive, with four rebounds, two blocks and learning moments. He got isolated in the second quarter against Young, who crossed him up for an easy floater. At the other end, he repented with a put-back and-one.