DENVER — Age is just a number like Jeff Green is just a basketball player.
When the 36-year-old launched himself into thin air on Saturday, soaring over and above Giannis Antetokounmpo for a gravity-defying jam, there was no telling what city he’d land in.
On the strength of Green’s hops, Nikola Jokic’s brilliance, Jamal Murray’s marksmanship, and a tenacious defensive effort that stymied Antetokounmpo in the second half, the Nuggets throttled the Bucks, 129-106, on Saturday evening.
For a team stuck in neutral, eagerly awaiting the start of the postseason yet with a few meaningful games still left, it was an emphatic statement of how dangerous the Nuggets can be when they commit defensively. Milwaukee scored 40 points in the second half, and the Nuggets outrebounded their opponent, 48-40.
Jokic powered the victory with 31 points, 11 assists and six rebounds, his offensive brilliance on display against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Brook Lopez. Murray poured in 26 points with nine assists, and Michael Porter Jr. rained in 19. Denver’s much-maligned bench injected all kinds of energy, beyond just Green’s acrobatics.
Bruce Brown buried a couple of 3-pointers to shed a recent slump, and Christian Braun’s defensive moments earned him a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
Denver improved to 50-24 and 31-6 at home. They’ll get another chance to stack their resume Monday against Philadelphia, when MVP candidate Joel Embiid visits.
Playing like an MVP candidate, Jokic seized control of the game in the third quarter. When he spotted mismatches in the post, or angles to exploit, he seized them. It was a masterclass in leveraging his ability to score with his transcendent vision. He scored 12 in the quarter alone and dished three more assists to scramble the Bucks’ elite defense. Two technical fouls, from Bobby Portis and then Lopez, served as evidence Jokic had gotten to them.
The Nuggets’ defense swarmed. After bludgeoning through Denver’s defense in the first half, Antetokounmpo was held to just four points in the third. Aaron Gordon deserved the lion’s share of the credit for his physicality and positioning. The 34-19 quarter staked the Nuggets to a 97-85 lead heading into the fourth.
If Nuggets coach Michael Malone respects a player in the NBA more than he does Antetokounmpo, you’d be hard-pressed to find him. Denver’s entire defensive gameplan was predicated on impeding Milwaukee’s superstar.
“For example, Giannis leads the NBA in coast-to-coast drives at 66 on the season,” Malone said before the game. “They are the fourth-best transition three-point shooting team. In the halfcourt, he’s second in the NBA at 18.5 paint points per game. This is the most shooting on any team that I can remember.
“It’s shooting galore around one of the best players to ever play the game. … In the halfcourt, when Giannis has the ball, no one can guard him one-on-one, no one.”
Antetokounmpo came as advertised. He thrashed through the lane, assaulting the rim for five first-half dunks. Against Gordon or Green, he was an unstoppable, downhill force that pummeled Denver’s defense for 24 points in the first half, almost all of them coming at the rim. His strength propelled the Bucks to a 66-63 halftime lead.
Malone hoped his team would respond to the challenge but given their inconsistencies over the last two weeks, there were no guarantees.
“I worry about everything,” Malone said. “I don’t ever assume anything.”
His concerns were allayed when Jokic buried the first shot of the game, then continued going at Lopez throughout the rest of the first half. His catalogue of post moves was so deep, even Hakeen Olajuwon would’ve been impressed. Jokic recorded 17 in the first half, and Porter added 12, including two 3-pointers.
But Denver’s high scorer was Murray, who caught fire from beyond the arc in the first quarter, erupting for 18 quick points. His four 3-pointers ignited Ball Arena and lit a fuse beneath another sellout crowd.