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Nuggets nullify ugly first half with 22-point comeback to beat Toronto Raptors

After the Nuggets’ worst third quarter of the season quietly sandwiched inside a blowout win, Jamal Murray shrugged off the complacent portion of the game.

“If you look at every game we’ve played, I feel like there’s been a stint where we haven’t played well,” he said Saturday.

For their next trick 48 hours later, the Nuggets proved that point in reverse.

They dug their deepest halftime hole of this season at Ball Arena — 17 points after trailing by as many as 22 — as if to see whether they could crawl out against an injury-depleted opponent. They could. Making a dramatic 180, Denver defeated Toronto on Monday night, 125-119.

Nikola Jokic amassed 35 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists, six steals and two blocks in his 126th career triple-double. Aaron Gordon added 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting, efficient when nobody else was. Murray went for 11 assists.

“What gets tiresome is people criticizing Nikola’s defense because he doesn’t average three blocks per game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But if you really are a basketball purist and you watch the game, you see he’s got some of the best hands in the NBA, bar none. … He’s never gonna out-athleticize anybody, but he is going to out-smart you. Tremendous anticipation. Great hands. And I think one of the most underrated defenders in the entire NBA.”

Malone said nobody received a defensive player of the game chain, because it was converted to a “defensive player of the half” award.

“My fault, Jok, my fault,” Murray said upon realizing he had neglected to notice Jokic’s steals while reading the big man’s box score.

“He gets to see where the mistakes might happen, or where the open (man) is, or the cutter,” Murray said. “He just does a really good job of anticipating and I think playing the angles, is probably the best thing. It’s less about being in the spot. He’s playing the angle, in the line of the pass.”

Toronto All-Star Scottie Barnes and a handful of teammates were out due to injuries, so two-way forward Jontay Porter was one of the first Raptors off the bench. He exceeded expectations with 14 points and five assists on 4-of-7 outside shooting in his first time sharing an NBA court with his brother, Michael Porter Jr.

Bruce Brown contributed a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double in his second return to Denver with as many opponents this season. When he drilled a 3-pointer in front of the Nuggets bench, he jokingly stared down his friend DeAndre Jordan, who had been “talking (bleep)” before and during the game.

“I looked right at DJ, because he said, ‘He’s with us,’” Brown said. “I’m not with them.”

Meanwhile, Malone shook up his bench rotations. Jokic took a seat with three minutes left in the first quarter as Gordon played the five for a 60-second stint until Zeke Nnaji joined the fray. But things started to unravel when the second unit surrendered an 11-0 run to start the second frame. Jokic checked back in earlier than usual to correspond with his early exit. He proceeded to commit the Nuggets’ eighth turnover, and his second, with 9:34 left in the half.

The Nuggets only turned it over once the remainder of the game.

“Do I like the fact that we didn’t play at all in the first half? No,” Malone said.

Defensive activity ramped up dramatically. Jokic anticipated and stole a pocket pass that started a fast break as Denver was chipping away in the third quarter. Murray buried a three to get the Nuggets back within single digits for the first time.

Their second unit improved considerably in its second try. A struggling Reggie Jackson, after missing four of his first five attempts, made a 3-pointer and a driving layup in the last 35 seconds of the third quarter to close the gap to 98-93. Toronto didn’t replicate its second-quarter surge with Jokic resting in the fourth. Murray was a changed man. He hadn’t scored his first point until 1:06 remained in the first half, but he finished with 26, making circus scoop shots and smooth turnaround jumpers to fuel the comeback.

“Yes, (Murray) is having a game, but that’s really important when you can have a game scoring; next thing you know you’ve got two guys on you, to have the courage to give up the ball and trust your teammates,” Malone said. “That’s such an important part of his game.”

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