Too much Giannis, not enough Joker.
Or any Joker, now that you mention it.
Reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic sat for a fourth straight game as he recovers from a wrist sprain, and his Nuggets continue to miss him — dropping a sixth straight game, this one to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, 120-109, at Ball Arena on Friday night.
It’s the Nuggets’ first losing skid of more than five games since 2015-16, coach Michael Malone’s first season at the helm.
Malone’s Nuggs that year endured two long losing streaks early on in the campaign — a six-game slide from Dec. 26, 2015 through Jan. 3, 2016, and an eight-game skid from Nov. 18, 2015 through Dec. 2, 2016.
Without their All-Star center, the Nuggets (9-10) were forced to play with a “small-ball” lineup that featured a pair of veteran 6-foot-8 forwards in JaMychal Green and Jeff Green instead of the 7-foot Jokic.
The Bucks (12-8) weren’t shy about taking advantage, outrebounding Denver by a margin of 44-30 and outscoring the Nuggets by 12 in the paint, 38-26, over the game’s first 36 minutes. Milwaukee shot 63.0% from the floor and 48.5% on 3-pointers (16 of 33) for the evening, much to Malone’s consternation.
“The only way we’re going to end this losing streak,” said Malone, whose Nuggets visit Miami on Monday to open up a seven-game road swing, “is if we find a way to play some defense.”
Despite gutsy nights from starters Aaron Gordon (18 points, nine boards), Jeff Green (15 points, three treys) and Monte Morris (15 points, eight assists) and extra juice from guard Facu Campazzo (16 points) and young forward Vlatko Cancar (10 points) off the bench, the Nuggets were outclassed from the jump by the defending NBA champions — and by Milwaukee’s star trio of Antetokounmpo (24 points, 13 rebounds), Jrue Holliday (16 points, six assists) and Khris Middleton (17 points, seven assists, four treys).
The hosts got to within five points on Will Barton’s trey four-and-a-half minutes into the second half, trimming the Milwaukee lead to 63-58. But the Bucks finished the third quarter on a 22-10 run, as two acrobatic Holiday buckets in the final minute of the period pushed the Milwaukee cushion to 90-71.
With two Greens in the starting lineup instead of the Joker, the reigning NBA champs drained five of their first six from the floor and two of three from beyond the arc. Grayson Allen’s trey at the top of the arc with 8:44 left put the Bucks up 12-4 to open the tilt and force Malone to call a quick timeout.
Milwaukee outscored the Nuggs 12-4 coming out of the break, pushing the cushion to 24-8 before another Denver timeout with 4:09 left in the quarter. The Bucks connected on nine of their first 13 attempts.
The Nuggets’ second unit closed the gap in the second quarter, thanks to scrappy play by Campazzo early and from the combo of Green and Green late.
Campazzo drained a pair of free throws, his 10th and 11th points of first half, to get the hosts to within 44-33 with 7:11 to go until halftime.
The Nuggets scratched to within 10 a minute later as Gordon’s 3-point play cut the lead to 46-36. And again, at 48-38, off of Jeff Green’s layup from the right side of the lane.
Jeff Green’s drive, a JaMychal Green jumper and a Jeff Green 3 from the left corner powered a 7-0 run that whittled the Milwaukee cushion to 48-43 with 3:44 to go until halftime.
Malone announced before the tilt that Jokic would miss his fourth straight game because of wrist issues and that rookie guard Bones Hyland was “TBD … more doubtful than anything” as he navigates a left ankle tweak.
“Our margin for error right now,” the Nuggets coach said matter-of-factly late Friday afternoon, “is maybe non-existent.”