DENVER |Nikola Jokic scored 39 points and pulled down 16 rebounds on the eve of the NBA MVP announcement to rally the Denver Nuggets to a 97-87 win over Phoenix on Monday night, giving them a 2-0 lead over the Suns in the Western Conference semifinals.
“I love an aggressive Nikola Jokic,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Jokic knocked down 17 shots to offset an off-night by Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who combined to make miss 17 of 22 shots.
“Nikola’s an MVP for a reason,” Malone said. “He can take over a game. He can beat you in a lot of ways. … I love a guy who’s getting to the basket, imposing his will upon the other team. And that fourth quarter, man, 14 points for that team, 28% from the field, 0-for-9 from 3?”
Devin Booker led Phoenix with 35 points and Kevin Durant added 24 but they combined to miss a whopping 32 shots, including 14 from long range.
Jokic shined a night before he learns if he’s edged Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo for his third consecutive NBA MVP award, recently renamed for Michael Jordan.
“I can’t think about that,” Jokic said.
Malone said that’s because Jokic isn’t motivated by winning more MVPs but by leading the Nuggets to their first NBA title.
“If he wins, it, we will be celebrating and very happy for him because it’d be a huge accomplishment — three years in a row. Only a few guys in NBA history have done that,” Malone said. “If he doesn’t win it, I’m still gonna give him a hug and tell him he’s the MVP in my eyes.”
He sure showed why Monday night when 26 of his points and 12 of his rebounds came after halftime, when he dominated at both ends of the floor, denyng the Suns a shot at tying the series that shifts to Phoenix for Game 3 Friday night.
“It was that kind of game,” Jokic said. “My team needed me to be aggressive.”
The Suns have been outscored by 30 points from long range this series.
“You’ve got to believe that it’s going to come our way here soon,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got to go home and take care of business. That’s where we are right now.”
The Suns held Murray to 10 points 48 hours after he went off for 34 but they had no answers for Jokic.
“Slowed down Murray a bit,” Durant said. “He obviously got it going in the first game. But Jokic was doing a little bit too much. I think we held them to 97 points total. Usually that’s a win for us.”
Jokic’s big night was necessary as Murray shot 3 for 15 and missed all nine of his 3-pointers after sinking six of 10 in the opener, and Porter scored five points on 2-for-7 shooting.
Aaron Gordon added 16 points and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 14 points and went 4 for 4 from beyond the arc, including back-to-back swishes that erased the 73-70 deficit and put the Nuggets ahead for good early in the fourth quarter.
The Suns lost Chris Paul to a tight left groin late in the third quarter and he finished with 8 points.
“He just looked like he was boxing out,” Williams said. “He just came up where he couldn’t push off of it or anything. So we’re not quite sure what it is right now, but it seems to be something in the groin area. So we’ll find out more tomorrow.”
Suns: Phoenix held the Nuggets to their lowest-scoring first quarter all season, limiting them to 18 points. … The Suns didn’t shoot a single free throw in the first half. … Paul finished with 8 points.
Nuggets: Jokic scored 11 of Denver’s first 14 points but only had 13 by halftime. … The Nuggets had 68 points by halftime in the series opener but made just 16 first-half shots Monday night.