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Nikola Jokic had 38 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, and the Denver Nuggets moved into fifth place in the Western Conference with a 129-118 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.
Will Barton scored 25 points and Aaron Gordon added 24 points and eight rebounds for the Nuggets, who capitalized on LeBron James’ absence with a fourth-quarter push to claim their fourth win in five games.
“Very satisfying, knowing the situation, four games to go (when) you have people right behind you, pushing you,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “It was an important win on the road. We’ve been a great team on the road throughout the regular season. … When it mattered most, we were able to stop.”
Denver edged Utah half a game for fifth in the playoffs, gaining extra insurance against being forced into the play-in tournament.
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“I think it’s a very important win for us,” Jokic said. “I’m just happy that we won. If we play badly and we win, that’s the most important thing. I think it was really a collective game that we did together, but hopefully we can keep going until you separate more and be even better.”
Anthony Davis had 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the 11th-placed Lakers, whose game hopes dwindled further with their sixth straight loss. Los Angeles has lost 28 of 38 since Jan. 7. Russell Westbrook added 27 points and Carmelo Anthony had 17.
The Lakers were competitive against a superior opponent but couldn’t overcome the absence of the NBA’s leading scorer, who sat out for the fourth time in six games to rest his sprained left ankle. James dropped 38 points in the Lakers’ loss to New Orleans on Friday night, but determined he couldn’t recover from that effort quickly enough to face the Nuggets early in the game.
“We don’t care about the calculations,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re worried about the next game. Take the lessons from this game, take them to the next game and hopefully get a win against Phoenix (Tuesday).”
Davis was excellent in his second game after a six-week injury absence, but this game was another missed opportunity for James, Davis and Westbrook to play together. James and Davis’ injury issues have limited the trio to a shared 21 games this season.
“We didn’t expect to only have 21 games together, but it’s been all year,” Davis said. “The times we were together we looked good. … That being said, we still have enough (players) to play a basketball game. We’re going to keep fighting this way, give each other a chance and see what happens.”
Nuggets: Barton wasn’t allowed to play until shortly before the game because he injured his knee, Malone said. … Malone reiterated his dislike of the play-in tournament before the game. He thinks it should only be used when the ninth and tenth place teams are extremely close to the teams above them. … DeMarcus Cousins had 14 points against his former team.
Lakers: The Lakers started a game Sunday behind San Antonio for 10th in the West and the last play-in tournament spot. The Spurs also hold the tiebreaker over LA, which means the Lakers face long odds. … Anthony has returned from a non-COVID illness. … Davis had his first consecutive 20-point games since Feb. 8.
James, 37, needs to play at least two of the Lakers’ last four games to qualify for the goalscoring title, which would only be the second of his career and the first since 2008. He started on Sunday ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid by a fraction of a point.
TAKE CARE OF TURNOVER
Jokic had turnovers on the Nuggets’ first two possessions in their first game since they made 18 turnovers in a nasty home loss to Minnesota – after which the MVP joked: “How bad are we- we good at returning the ball? We’re so good it’s crazy.” Denver finished with just 12 turnovers against the Lakers, including just two in the fourth quarter.
Nuggets: Host Spurs on Tuesday.
Lakers: At the Suns on Tuesday.