What a wild Christmas night.
The Denver Nuggets defeated the Phoenix Suns 128-125 in overtime, capping off a five-game NBA slate on Christmas Day. The Nuggets claimed sole possession of first place in the Western Conference with the win, improving to 21-11 on the season.
Nikola Jokić was incredible, posting a triple-double of 41 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists. He led the Nuggets through some difficult stretches to earn a clutch win over the Suns, who lost Devin Booker in the first quarter due to a nagging groin injury. In his place, Landry Shamet nearly won the Suns the game with 31 points and 6 assists off the bench, though the Nuggets ultimately got a stop on a Shamet three-pointer in the final possession.
Here are my primary takeaways from the Nuggets Christmas Day matchup with the Phoenix Suns:Nikola Jokić has an absolute masterclass
Christmas Day is when the stars come out to play, and the Nuggets knew they needed Nikola Jokić to be at his best to defeat a really good team. His approach from the get-go was awesome, splashing a confident mid-range jumper over DeAndre Ayton for the opening bucket of the game. He stayed aggressive in every stint, looking for his shots and leveraging his scoring to be a great playmaker on the move and at the top of the key. Whenever the Nuggets needed a clutch basket, they turned to the big fella to direct everything, and he delivered.
Overall, Jokić finished with 41 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists, one of his best statistical performances of the season. He added a block to that ledger and was +12 in a three-point overtime victory during his 44 minutes played. It was a true masterclass. The only other players in the Stathead database to log 40-15-15 in a single game are James Harden and Oscar Robertson (though it feels like another Wilt Chamberlain stat).
There are few words left to describe Nikola Jokić, but let’s try anyway. He’s somehow better than he was last year. The effort at the beginning of the season was a bit lackluster, and the details weren’t as crisp. Yet, 32 games into the season, and it feels like he’s had another MVP caliber campaign. Given how disastrous the Nuggets bench unit has been, the Nuggets have needed everything from Jokić to be the team that they are with the record they currently have. He’s as valuable to the Nuggets as any superstar is to their franchise, if not more so.
Whether Jokić wins the award at the end of the year is anybody’s guess, but it certainly appears that he will be in the running once again. With the Nuggets at the top of the West, nobody has taken that award from Jokić at this point.Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon step up when the lights are brightest
The Nuggets needed more than just Jokić to win tonight though, and they sure got that from both Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon.
Murray wasn’t at his most efficient throughout the night, but he saved his best for the fourth quarter when the Nuggets needed him most. His three-pointer in the corner to beat the buzzer gave the Nuggets life, and the two threes he hit in succession with roughly three minutes remaining swung the odds back in Denver’s favor. Though he missed one of two clutch shots at the very end of regulation, he dunked home a game-tying shot with about 10 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime, taking advantage of the attention thrown Joker’s way.
On the night, Murray finished with 25 points and 5 assists on 19 shots. It wasn’t his best night, but it was when he hit those shots that made the difference. The Nuggets needed their bench unit to survive, and it did because Jamal willed it.
Throughout the season, the Nuggets have known that Murray’s return from ACL surgery would be a long and arduous recovery on the court, not just in the training room. They’ve approached the season like a checklist, with Murray clearing certain benchmarks to be ready for the stretch run of the season.
Tonight, another two benchmarks cleared: Murray’s first 40-minute game and first overtime game of the season.
Then, there’s Aaron Gordon, who may have thrown down the Dunk of the Year during the fourth quarter tonight.
Gordon has been a rock for the Nuggets this year. His aggressiveness and tenacity have led to a career season for the 27-year-old, and his willingness to embrace who he is and what he’s best at have been extremely notable. Using his athleticism to the best of his ability, Gordon had several dunks and blocks tonight that won the Nuggets the game. He saved the best for last though, which had the entire arena in absolute awe of the audacity and athleticism.
Gordon finished the game with 28 points and 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive rebounds. He shot 11-of-18 from the field and continues to prove just how great of a fit he is within the Nuggets ecosystem.The Nuggets have a target on their back now
With this win, the Nuggets moved into sole possession of first place in the Western Conference, beating another contender on national TV in an overtime contest. It was a great moment for the team, and even though it came without Devin Booker for much of the game on the other side, it was a nice confidence boost to a Nuggets team that absolutely needed a win against the Suns specifically. The Nuggets have wins against the Suns, Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers. They’ve matched up with various contenders in the West and emerged victorious. It seems like they’re finding themselves on the fly and are just as good as we thought they could be.
Now though, the gauntlet has been thrown. Other teams will be looking up at the Nuggets at the top of the playoff picture and find ways to go after them. They will pick apart Denver’s weaknesses. They will game plan for the best player in the NBA and see how steady the rest of the supporting cast is. That process started tonight right as the date changed to the 26th.
The Nuggets have a target on their backs and will be treated as such. It’s up to them to handle that pressure with grace and poise. Some teams crack under that pressure in the brightest moments. Other teams revel in those competitive environments and raise their games to another level entirely.
Which team will the Nuggets be?Final Rotations