On Kids’ Night at Capital One Arena, Denver Nuggets (30-14) star Nikola Jokic stood tall as a man among boys. The Serbian center dropped a season-high 42 points despite not attempting a single three point shot. He added 12 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal, and 0 turnovers. The Washington Wizards (7-35) could find no answer for his offensive dominance and can count themselves lucky to prevent another of the triple doubles he makes commonplace. He made history tonight; his 93rd career game with more than 30 points and 10 rebounds passed Michael Jordan for 26th on the all-time NBA leaderboard.
Washington came into this matchup dropping three straight—two of them to the Pistons and Spurs, fellow contenders for the worst record in the NBA—and the reigning NBA Champion Denver Nuggets predictably continued that skid. Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s starting lineup of G Jamal Murray, G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, F Michael Porter Jr, F Aaron Gordon, and center Nikola Jokic, remained unchanged from Game 5 of the 2023 NBA finals. The Wizards’ starters—G Jordan Poole, G Tyus Jones, F Kyle Kuzma, F Deni Avdija, and C Daniel Gafford—were outmatched from the tip. Wizards’ coach Wes Unseld Jr. chose to let Gafford guard Jokic one on one, a decision he would come to regret. Jokic scored the first basket of the game following a deft spin move around him in the paint, a trick that proved fruitful for him on multiple occasions in this contest. Despite Jokic’s prowess, the Wizards kept the game remarkably even midway through the first quarter, with Washington leading 12-9 around the 7 minute mark. However, Denver went on a run and then took control, almost always leading by a comfortable margin of around 10 points. By the end of the first quarter, the score was 33-24 Denver with Jokic putting up 15. However, his absence was definitely felt when young center Zeke Nnaji replaced him toward the end of the period; the Nuggets’ non-Jokic minutes remain a problem for Malone’s squad. On the Wizards’ side of things, Bilal Coulibaly — the number seven overall pick in this year’s draft — continued his excellent rookie season off the bench, bouncing back from an airball three pointer to slam home multiple dunks and block several shots.
The second quarter would bring more of the same, with the Nuggets leaning on Jokic to keep Washington at bay. I liked what I saw from the Wizards bench much more than the starters, with G Delon Wright’s silky drives and newly-acquired C Marvin Bagley’s high-flying attacks entertaining the home crowd. Unfortunately Kuzma couldn’t get going and supposed marquee point guard Poole felt invisible at best and abysmal at worst. Poole would go on to finish 1-7 from the field with 4 fouls, his only points coming from a three pointer and a technical foul free throw. At the half, Denver led 62-52. During the break, I encountered two Serbian fans in line at Little Miner Taco, one proudly sporting a Serbia national team jersey with Jokić on the back. Indeed, the arena seemed to be filled with scores of Nuggets fans or people in the area who wanted to witness Jokić’s greatness.
The third quarter belonged to Jokić once again; when he checked out with 1:16 remaining, he was only 2 assists shy of a triple-double. Sadly for the neutral viewer, he rested most of the fourth quarter and finished with just 8 assists, but the crowd was treated to an audacious over the head reverse dime from Jokić to Gordon for a reverse slam. The Wizards kept pace but held easily at bay despite an outstanding second half performance from Kuzma, who scored 6 unanswered points midway through the third quarter. Despite the somewhat close game, the home crowd sounded jaded and lacked hope; by far the loudest cheers on the night came when Jokić checked back into the game toward the end of the fourth quarter. As he swished points 41 and 42 from the foul line, a rising chorus of “MVP! MVP! MVP” cascaded throughout Capital One Arena, emanating from home and visiting fans alike. The Washington Wizards have been so poor and uninspiring in recent years that the only draw is when megastars come to town.
In the end, Denver won 113-104, with every starter scoring 10 or more points. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. both chipped in 19 on top of Jokić’s 42. Aaron Gordon quietly notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, riding a strong second half performance. However, no bench player scored more than 3 points from open play, a concerning statistic for a team that has always relied too heavily on its elite starters staying healthy. Tyus Jones had 13 assists (to only 1 turnover), leading all players, and his 15 points made him the only Wizard with a double-double this game. Kuzma was Washington’s leading scorer with 17, and the rest of the point totals were well balanced with a lot of production coming from the bench, an encouraging statistic to build on. I thought Landry Shamet, Coulibaly, and Bagley shined–albeit mostly against Denver’s second team.
Following the Nuggets’ victory, Malone sounded in high spirits at the postgame press conference. Naturally, almost every question centered on Jokić, and Malone duly praised his talisman. “If you don’t love Nikola, I don’t know what you’re looking for,” he gushed, comparing his MVP chant reception to the atmosphere around LeBron James when he was a Cleveland Cavaliers assistant between 2005 and 2010. Many have cemented Joel Embiid as the frontrunner for this year’s NBA MVP Award, but Jokić will not go down without a fight.
Note: On January 25, 2024, The Washington Wizards fired head coach Wes Unseld Jr after dropping to 7-36 following a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.