Nikola Jokic dazzles in front of adoring crowd as Nuggets knock off Wizards

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON – The five-city, two-country road trip ended here Wednesday night with more than a dozen Serbian flags surrounding the court from doting fans.

In what occasionally sounded like a Nuggets home game, two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic gave some of his countrymen reason to cheer as he destroyed Washington’s meager defense. The Nuggets, following his lead, cruised to a convincing, 118-104 win, to cap their road trip at 3-2.

Jokic ended the evening with 31 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists, eventually subbing out with under three minutes remaining, perhaps to avoid any accusations of stat-padding.

At 49-24 and 19-18 away from home, the Nuggets can finally take solace in that their longest remaining road trip of the year is over.

Michael Porter Jr. buried six 3-pointers, as the Nuggets caught fire from beyond the arc. Denver shot 15 for 32 from 3-point range, overwhelming Washington’s scoring punch. Kristaps Porzingis had 25, but no other Wizard managed more than 16.

Jamal Murray added three more 3-pointers to supplement the barrage.

The third quarter began, and the Nuggets were, finally, engaged. Their defense was physical and tenacious, while their offense unleashed its full capacity. Porter ripped two steals that led to runouts. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did, too. It was as if Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s ever-present message – defend and run – clicked.

The game marked a homecoming of sorts for former Wizard Caldwell-Pope, who was part of an offseason trade Denver made to bolster its perimeter defense.

“We didn’t get him for the regular season,” Malone said, underscoring how valuable they viewed him while sending Monte Morris and Will Barton to Washington.

The defense bled to offense, and Denver’s attack took off. Porter drained three 3-pointers in the third, and Jokic racked up 10 points in the quarter alone. A 27-12 run blasted the game open. Malone even found a moment to steal a smile on the visiting bench with some of his veterans.

The 39-16 pounding opened up a 94-73 lead going into the final quarter, and the Nuggets finally looked like a team primed for the postseason in a few weeks.

Malone spent Wednesday’s pregame talking about his team’s maturity and wondering whether they’d ease into a contest against a team likely headed for the draft lottery.

That came following Tuesday’s practice at Georgetown, which was scheduled to “sweat out New York City,” and gets his team moving again amid an extended road trip.

“The time is now,” Malone said. With only nine games left in the regular season, the expectation of championship habits – not to mention an interest in playing well – should’ve already been established.

And yet, the Nuggets stumbled their way through an underwhelming first half against the Wizards, entering halftime down 57-55.

Jokic was assertive, dumping in 16 points and snatching seven early boards. A pro-Jokic crowd watched him soar for a first-half dunk, and then roared when he buried a 3-pointer. They even raised their tenor at the prospect of him hoisting one from beyond the arc.

But outside of Jokic, the Nuggets weren’t sharp in their execution and weren’t dedicated in their defensive commitment. Porzingis paced Washington with 15 first-half points, shredding Denver’s interior defense.

For a half, Denver’s interest in establishing championship habits looked half-hearted, at best.