DENVER — For a time it looked as though Wednesday might turn out to be a tidy, full-circle moment for a couple of Washington Wizards players. The team was as depleted as it has been all season playing without Bradley Beal (hamstring) and Kristaps Porzingis (back), creating an opportunity for two heroes to emerge.
Will Barton and Monte Morris filled those slots for a time in what might have been a triumphant return against their former team.
But Wednesday’s 141-128 Nuggets’ win belonged to two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr.'s former pupil who got hot in the second half to log a season-high 43 points along with 14 rebounds, eight assists and five steals, spearheading Denver’s total domination in the paint for an NBA record 98 points — nearly double their usual per-game average.
98 is the new record. Have seen where the Raptors are shown to have 100 on 12/1/17, but they had 70.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) December 15, 2022
(They had 120 points w/ 10 3s, so 100 PITP would be impossible.)https://t.co/HbmyYJUZS7
Previous record was 96 by the Wizards themselves on 5/3/21: https://t.co/4Wbr3jDVCC https://t.co/EWXHUZEgNc
The loss, Washington’s eighth straight, stung even more because of Jokic’s masterful performance.
“He was playing with a level of ease. You have to find a way to give resistance early ... there’s no help when a guy catches two feet in the restricted,” Unseld said. “More resistance before the catch, more resistance after the catch — we do that, then it allows you to scheme and get the ball out of the guy’s hands. Handful of those were transition, which there’s no scheme for that at all. That’s just urgency to get back.”
Without Porzingis, who felt his lower back tighten up early in the third quarter of Monday’s setback to Brooklyn, Unseld started veteran center Taj Gibson and kept backup Daniel Gafford coming off the bench.
But there was no one who could disrupt Jokic. The Wizards were left trying to match Denver’s might with offense.
“He’s going to barrel through no matter what,” Gibson said. “If you watched the game, we were hitting him, meeting him early, he just found his spots and at times he’ll hit you first. The moment you try to brace up, it goes the other way, a lot of foul calls ... even when you at least try to tap him, he’s real smart with knowing how to at least draw the fouls. And then when we try to adjust and try to play like ... not physical, not being able to touch him, he’ll get a lot of free layups, a lot of floater shots. He’s 7-feet. He’s talented.”
The Wizards had one of their most productive offensive games all season, shooting 52.7 percent from the field and tying a season-high with 19 three-pointers. But Jokic and the Nuggets were even sharper, shooting 65.1 percent and milking Washington’s flimsy interior defense for all it was worth.
Jokic made it easy for five of his supporting castmates to score in double figures, including Aaron Gordon, who had 22 points.
There were hardly bright spots for the Wizards, but Barton and Morris did receive warm standing ovations from the Denver crowd amid good individual nights for both.
Barton tied a season-high in points (22) and logged a season-high in assists (nine), while Morris had a season-high 22 points and seven assists — and came away with a chipped front tooth for his effort.
“Everything was fun besides losing my tooth,” Morris said, when asked about his return. “Standing ovation was cool, the fans embraced me here. ... It was like practice, it felt like practice to me just talking during the game. Jokic, I always knew he was nice. On the other side playing against him, he’s a load."
The Wizards kept pace in a defense-challenged first half thanks in large part to their ownership of the three-point line — their only option, given that Jokic had already swallowed all the real estate under the basket and helped the Nuggets to 52 points in the paint.
They made 11 of 19 attempts from beyond the arc compared to Denver’s 1 of 9 and capitalized on their success from long range and Denver’s eight turnovers to stay within arm’s reach, trailing 72-67 at halftime. Credit Barton and Morris, who combined for 13 of Washington’s 23 assists to keep the offense moving and created the necessary space for all those three-pointers.
Here’s what else to know from Wednesday’s loss:
Unseld said Wednesday he is “hopeful" that backup point guard Delon Wright will be available to play at some points during Washington’s six-game road trip, which continues Saturday night against the Clippers in Los Angeles. Wright last played Oct. 25 when he strained his hamstring and would offer much needed fresh legs to the depleted Wizards and, ideally, bolster the defense.
Rui Hachimura’s status is less certain. The forward has a bone bruise on an ankle he sprained Nov. 18 and has only progressed to playing one-on-one so far.
Bradley Beal missed his fifth consecutive game with a hamstring strain.
Gibson gets the start
Taj Gibson started for the first time since Feb. 8 and for just the eighth time since the start of the 2020-21 season with Porzingis sidelined.