The Denver Nuggets have been one of the more scrutinized, largely dismissed 20-8 teams I can recall. All season they've been talked about as something of a disappointment. Nikola Jokic hasn't been the same. The offense isn't there. We all got ahead of ourselves after Denver looked like the next big thing in last year's playoffs.
Except, you look up at the Nuggets -- who sent the Lakers to their third straight loss, 128-104, on Sunday -- and they're No. 2 in the West.
The defense has been elite all season. Perhaps because we've never associated this team with elite defense we've found it hard to believe in the sustainability of that particular feature. Well, they held the Lakers to 104 points on Sunday. Yes, LeBron James didn't play, and that's not small factor. The Lakers are the No. 5 offense in the league this season, but when LeBron sits they fall to 102.2 points per 100 possessions, which would rank as the worst mark in the league.
Still, Denver's defense deserves its props, and the offense is coming around. Jokic, who finished with 18 points on just eight shots on Sunday, is largely back to his old self, particularly as a playmaker. In December, Jokic is averaging 7.9 assists per game (up from 5.8 in November), which ranks sixth in the league. And the shooting is coming back, which really makes Denver tough to guard when he's on the perimeter as a dual threat to launch from deep or pick you apart as a passer.
Jokic shooting percentages:
- November: 45.1 percent overall, 23.6 from three
- December: 53.7 percent overall, 37.2 from three
It's not all Jokic. Jamal Murray, though he did next to nothing in the win over the Lakers, has had some big games. Paul Millsap, who finished with 21 points on Sunday on 3-of-4 from three, has been his usual rock self -- one of the most statistically significant defenders in the league. Gary Harris was great. Malik Beasley was great. Will Barton and Mason Plumlee combined for 24 points.
The Nuggets, even if their recent schedule has been pretty conducive to a hot streak, are starting to click. They've won six straight and seven of 10. Their offense has climbed from 22nd in the league in December to seventh in December. And again, they're No. 2 in the West despite not playing anywhere near their potential offensively. Even with some defensive regression, this team still looks like the team we thought they'd be.
Jayson Tatum scores career high
Tatum is putting it all together this season on both ends. He should be an All-Star lock, with his most recent case being the career-high 39 points -- to go with 12 boards -- he hung on Charlotte on Sunday. It's hard to believe Tatum has never put up 40 in an NBA game. He is such a gifted, natural scorer from all three levels. It won't be long before he's cracking 40 and probably 50 at some point.
On Sunday, Tatum did it from everywhere.
How's this for an endorsement from Kemba Walker?
Kemba Walker on Jayson Tatum: “Nobody has seen nothing yet. He’s coming. He’s coming strong.”— Jay King (@ByJayKing) December 23, 2019
Said Tatum will be one of the NBA’s best players one day.
Tatum's big night included 22 points in the fourth quarter alone, as the Celtics took an eight-point game at the end of the third and turned it into a 119-93 blowout. Boston is now 20-7 on the season, good enough for No. 2 in the East.
Raptors mount historic comeback
The Raptors trailed the visiting Mavericks by 30 points with less than three minutes to play in the third quarter on Sunday. They trailed by 23 heading into the fourth. Less than six game minutes later, at the 5:30 mark of the fourth, they had tied the score at 95.
They did it in frantic fashion, springing a full-court press and constant traps on the Mavs, who handled the pressure as you would expect a high school team to handle it, throwing the ball all over the court.
Then Kyle Lowry took over. Lowry scored 20 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 32-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound night.
On a night when Lowry credited his teammates in his postgame interview despite his own heroics, it was fitting that he got the assist for the game-winner from Chris Boucher.
The comeback was the largest in Raptors history, and the biggest the NBA has seen since 2009 when the Kings rallied to beat the Bulls, per Elias Sports. Winner of five straight, the Raptors, at 21-8 and No. 4 in the East, continue to be one of the best stories in the league after pretty much everyone, myself included, got in a big fat hurry to forget about them the second Kawhi Leonard left.