Nikola Jokic's not going out like that.
The Denver Nuggets secured a 126-121 win at home on Sunday to keep their first-round series against the Golden State Warriors alive. The win cuts Golden State's series lead to 3-1 while fending off an ignominious first-round sweep for a Nuggets team led by the presumptive NBA MVP in Jokic.
Denver took control of a chippy game early en route to a 63-52 halftime lead. But a Warriors team led by Stephen Curry and a revitalized Klay Thompson rallied to take a 121-119 lead in the game's final two minutes on a Stephen Curry jumper.
But with Draymond Green sidelined with six fouls, the Nuggets found the final answers including a Jokic floater to tie the game at 121-121 and a Will Barton 3-point dagger on a Jokic pass to secure the game's final margin with 8.6 seconds remaining.
WILL BARTON WITH THE DAGGER 🗡️pic.twitter.com/laiKnCwM9P
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) April 24, 2022
Jokic led the Nuggets effort with 37 points, eight rebounds and six assists. In the process, he silenced critics — for the moment, at least — who had chided the MVP favorite previously on the verge of exiting the playoffs without a win.
"We needed to put up the fight. We didn't want to get swept," Jokic told ESPN after the game. "I think we didn't deserve it against them. We just have more pride in ourselves. We were fighting. They're a great team, but today we won."
Game gets chippy early
Tension matched the stakes early in the game, which took all of 40 seconds for a scuffle to break out. Green, who's flustered Jokic for much of the series with physical play and aggressive defense, poked Jokic in his right eye while attempting to force a turnover. The poke appeared unintentional, but sparked a response nonetheless.
Jokic's teammate Aaron Gordon challenged Green, and they each picked up technical fouls after exchanging words and some hand fighting.
Things already getting chippy in Warriors - Nuggets 🍿 pic.twitter.com/rVXGHcXKnK
— Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) April 24, 2022
When play resumed, Jokic quickly quelled any concerns that the eye poke would hinder his game. He outscored the Warriors singlehandedly for most of the first quarter en route to 18 points and six rebounds in the stanza, including hitting both of his 3-point attempts on back-to-back possessions.
It was the kind of run that that lifted Jokic to his favored status to win a second straight league MVP. On a team missing its second and third options in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. most of the season, Jokic was repeatedly leaned on to do the heavy lifting as a star surrounded by role players. Like he did on Sunday, he's repeatedly delivered throughout the season.
But Jokic alone isn't always enough to pull out a Nuggets win, and a championship-caliber team like the Warriors coming into its own in the postseason has largely proven to be too much of a challenge this series. The Nuggets increased their 26-21 first-quarter edge to an 11-point margin by halftime. But the Warriors found their offensive rhythm after halftime, most notably in the form of Thompson, who had one of his best performances since returning midseason from a two-season layoff because of ACL and Achilles tendon injuries.
Thompson scored 22 of his 32 points after halftime while connecting on 12-of-20 field goals including 7 of 11 from 3-point distance. Curry continued to thrive in the sixth-man role he's adopted since returning from a late-season foot injury, leading the Warriors with 33 points alongside eight assists.
It was enough to put pressure on Denver with a potential sweep at hand. But it wasn't enough for the win. The series shifts back to San Francisco for Game 5 on Wednesday, where the Warriors will be favored to close out the series and punch their tickets to the Western Conference semifinals.
Can Nuggets muster another win?
For the Nuggets, Sunday's win was a matter of pride and support for Jokic, who didn't pull out the victory on his own. Monte Morris chipped in 24 points and five assists, while Gordon added 21 points, six rebounds and some tone-setting toughness in the game's opening minute. Denver shot 56.2% from the field as a team.
It was a strong effort that will be difficult to replicate in San Francisco, where the Nuggets will have to dig even deeper to keep the series going.