Nikola Jokic had 38 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, and the Denver Nuggets moved into fifth place in the Western Conference with a 129-118 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.
Will Barton scored 25 points and Aaron Gordon added 24 points and eight rebounds for the Nuggets, who capitalized on LeBron James' absence with a fourth-quarter surge to grab their fourth win in five games. Denver moved a half-game ahead of Utah for the fifth spot in the playoff picture, getting further insurance against being forced into the play-in tournament.
Anthony Davis had 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the 11th-place Lakers, whose play-in hopes waned further with their sixth consecutive loss. Los Angeles has lost 28 of 38 since Jan. 7. Russell Westbrook added 27 points and Carmelo Anthony had 17.
The Lakers were competitive against a superior opponent, yet couldn't overcome the absence of the NBA's leading scorer, who sat for the fourth time in six games to rest his sprained left ankle. James dropped 38 points in the Lakers' loss to New Orleans on Friday night, but determined he couldn't recover from that exertion quickly enough to face the Nuggets in an early game. T
The 37-year-old James has to play in at least two of the Lakers' final four games to qualify for the scoring title, which would be only the second of his career and first since 2008. He began Sunday ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid by a fraction of a point.
Jokic committed turnovers on the Nuggets' first two possessions in their first game since they made 18 turnovers in an ugly home loss to Minnesota — after which the MVP quipped: “How good are we at turning the ball over? We’re so good that it’s crazy.”
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Jokic scored 24 points in the second half, including 14 points in the third quarter, as the Nuggets nursed a small lead.
Nuggets: Coach Michael Malone reiterated his dislike for the play-in tournament before the game and believes it should be used only when the ninth- and 10th-place teams are extremely close to the teams above them. ... DeMarcus Cousins had 14 points against his former team.
Lakers: The Lakers began Sunday one game behind San Antonio for 10th place in the West and the final spot in the play-in tournament. The Spurs also hold the tiebreaker over LA, meaning the Lakers face long odds. ... Anthony returned from a non-COVID illness. ... Davis had his first back-to-back 20-point games since Feb. 8.
SOCIAL JUSTICE CHAMPIONS
In two pregame ceremonies, the NBA unveiled the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Trophy, which will be given annually to the league's “Social Justice Champion.”
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's career scoring leader and a lifelong advocate for social justice and equality, was on hand for the first public presentation of the trophy. Anthony won the award last year and appeared on court with Abdul-Jabbar before tipoff.
Nuggets: Host Spurs on Tuesday.
Lakers: At Suns on Tuesday.