(Photo credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports)
With Jamal Murray likely out for at least two more weeks, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic has had to take on an even larger workload than he's been accustomed to.
Jokic did all he could against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, supplying 26 points, 18 assists and 16 rebounds, but Denver stilllost by five. Now the Nuggets will have to quickly move on from their first in-season tournament loss as they take on the host Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night.
The Cavaliers have won two straight games and beat the Detroit Pistons 108-100 on Friday night with Denver's former nemesis, Donovan Mitchell, sidelined due to a right hamstring strain. Mitchell will miss his second straight game on Sunday.
With Mitchell sidelined, Darius Garland stepped up with a big game against the Pistons, scoring a season-high 28 points in his return to the lineup after a one-game absence due to a neck strain. Garland's importance increases without Mitchell available.
"We know how important Darius is to us," Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "He is the leader of this team, the ball is in his hands, and he has the keys. We need Darius to keep growing and keep leading this team."
Garland has played in just seven of the Cavaliers' 12 games this season and is second on the team in scoring at 18.7 points a game. Mitchell leads the way at 29.2 per game, and when he hasn't been in the lineup, the door opens for Garland to get more looks.
Meanwhile, Murray hasn't played since suffering a right hamstring strain against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 4. Denver is 3-2 without Murray, with both losses coming on the road by a total of eight points.
If the Nuggets learned anything from Friday's setback, it's that falling behind by 20 and trying to play catch-up is not a winning formula. Denver got within one late in the fourth quarter, but it could never find a way to grab the lead.
"My main theme of this game is that we cannot build ourselves a hole like that, knowing that we are going to get the best of everybody," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "Everybody wants to beat the defending champions. I really applauded the effort in the second half. I just want that to be closer to 48 minutes, if possible."
Part of the problem has been the lack of production from Denver's bench. Two key reserves from last season's title run -- Bruce Brown and Jeff Green -- left via free agency, forcing Malone to give minutes to his younger players and deal with the growing pains.
Christian Braun has started to find a rhythm, though, as he followed up a 10-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday with a career-high 25 points on Friday. Julian Strawther also flashed some potential with 21 points in 19 minutes against the Pelicans on Nov. 6, but he's played a total of 27 minutes across three games since then.
Reggie Jackson, who has been starting at point guard, has averaged 14.6 points and 3.8 assists since taking over for Murray.
--Field Level Media