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Apr 5, 2024 4:06 pm

Nuggets’ chase for top seed continues against Hawks

jokic nuggets hawks

You couldn’t blame the Denver Nuggets for already thinking about another deep playoff run.

A second straight season holding the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed hangs in the balance, however.

Following Thursday’s 102-100 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Nuggets (53-24) sit a half-game behind the No. 1 Minnesota Timberwolves, and just a half-game ahead of the No. 3 Oklahoma City Thunder in the tightly knit West.

Denver hosts the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, before four games against conference opponents to finish the season.

In a crucial game with seeding implications, the Nuggets jumped out to an early 25-8 lead over the Clippers, but saw their advantage trimmed to a point late in the first half.

After a James Harden triple gave Los Angeles a two-point advantage with 32 seconds left before halftime, Denver trailed for the remainder of the contest.

“That second quarter, (the Clippers) scored 33 points, and shot 50 percent from the field,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We’ve got to really look at that film, because it seems like this is happening a little too often right now.”

Denver star Nikola Jokic had a typical all-around performance, collecting game-highs of 36 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. Aaron Gordon was the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer with 18.

Jokic leads the team with 26.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game. Denver has been without Jamal Murray (20.9 points, 6.7 assists) since March 21 with a knee injury.

“Those non-Nikola minutes, how can we survive those?” Malone added. “It’s hard when Jamal’s not here because usually he’s out there. But that (second quarter) was a really big stretch of the game.”

Malone was ejected with 7:54 remaining for arguing a no-call against Denver’s Michael Porter Jr.

“The first thing I told my players is I apologize for getting thrown out,” Malone said. “In a close game I’ve got to be there to help them at the end of the game.”

As for Atlanta (36-41), a 6-2 record in the last two weeks cliched a play-in berth — its third straight appearance in the 7-10 tournament.

The only question left now is whether the Hawks will be at home or on the road for their 9-10 game on April 17. As it stands entering Friday’s schedule, Atlanta sits a half-game behind the Chicago Bulls for the No. 9 seed.

The Hawks could have helped their cause with a win in Dallas on Thursday, but fell 109-95, mustering just 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter hit a 3-pointer to cut the Hawks’ deficit to seven with 6:16 left, but didn’t connect on another field goal the remainder of the game.

“I thought we gave ourselves a chance because we continued to work and fight, defensively,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said. “The last five minutes, we were still there. We had a couple three’s rim out and missed a layup that could have cut it to five.”

A day after Atlanta forward Jalen Johnson collected 28 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in his first career triple-double in a win over Detroit, he was held to six points on 3-for-12 shooting from the field against the Mavericks.

Nonetheless, the third-year player has enjoyed a breakout season, averaging 16.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

Atlanta is aiming for its first road win against Denver since Nov. 12, 2019.

–Field Level Media

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