As the lead ballooned for the Denver Nuggets almost from the opening tip, there was a feeling of familiarity for the Knicks. They hadn’t won in Denver since 2006 and even in this surprising season, had lost by 25 points to the Nuggets at Madison Square Garde earlier this season.
It’s just that the Knicks hadn’t put up one of these sort of humiliating performances in a long time. A far different team this season under Tom Thibodeau than what they’d been in recent years, they had not been blown out in any game since the All-Star break and entered this game with 12 wins in their last 13 games.
But Nikola Jokic took care of all of that, scoring 24 of his 32 points in the first quarter as the Nugget built leads of as many as 31 points with help from former Knick Austin Rivers in beating the Knicks, 113-97, at Ball Arena.
While the Knicks lost, Atlanta defeated Phoenix, cutting the Knicks lead for fourth place to just a half game.
This one might have been decided even before Jokic — or anyone — scored a point as RJ Barrett was whistled for two fouls in the opening 21 seconds of the game. When Nerlens Noel was called for a foul on the same possession, Thibodeau was called for a technical foul. Jokic went to the line and converted that free throw starting an avalanche.
"That was pretty much the start of the game," Julius Randle said. "But, you know, we didn't come ready to play either so, I’m not going to blame that, but we didn’t come ready to play.
"I’m throwing this one in the trash. Two and one to start the road trip, we’ve got a great opportunity in Phoenix, so that's what I'm looking forward to. I’m throwing this one in the trash."
"We can't allow it on the road," Thibodeau said. "Probably some tough calls go against us, and then at the end, we got some calls but the game was already decided so, that's the way it is on the road. You’ve got to play through that and just get ready for the next one."
The Nuggets went up 9-2 before Thibodeau called his first timeout. He called another at 26-6 with 3:31 left in the first quarter. But no matter what he said or what the Knicks tried in the quarter, they couldn’t slow Jokic and an assortment of Nuggets who joined in — including Rivers, who had 25 points, and Facundo Campazzo, who added 16 points, nine rebounds and five steals.
Any debate about Julius Randle competing with Jokic for MVP honors may have been settled in that first half. Randle didn’t convert a field goal until 3:58 remained in the half, finishing at 2-for-8 while Barrett was 0-for-4 and Alec Burks, trying to provide a lift off the bench, was 0-for-6 shooting. While they were struggling, Jokic was dominant. Randle would finish with 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
"A great example and a reinforcement of why Nikola Jokic is the MVP," Denver coach Mike Malone said. "For us to be doing what we’re doing you have to have a great player. And we have that. We have lots of good players around him. But Nikola set the tone."
The Knicks tried everything and there were moments. Taj Gibson, moments after getting hit with his fifth foul midway through the third quarter with the Knicks down by 24, dove headlong for a loose ball and flipped it ahead, leading to a layup. It might not have seemed like much, but it was followed by Barrett — who had missed all seven of his field-goal attempts and was scoreless to that point — hitting a corner three-pointer with 5:31 left in the third. Barrett followed that with another corner three and the deficit was 75-59 with 4:59 left in the quarter.
Rivers answered with a three on the other end and the lead was back to 19. the Knicks misfired on a few chances and when Jokic found Rivers again in the corner with a no-look pass for a three the lead was 85-64. Rivers glared at the Knicks bench.
"He’s talked to me extensively how difficult it was for him in New York," Micheal Porter Jr. said. "So he told me coming into tonight how aggressive he was going to be and he was trying to get those dudes back."
"Tonight was a good one," said Rivers, who also said he did not want to get into why he felt like he needed revenge.
"It was more special because of how we played. We dominated the whole game. We dominated on both ends of the floor. It’s almost like the whole team took it personal. And it was a good feeling to have. It was like they had my back."
As the third quarter was coming to an end, Noel provided what could have been a lift, smothering a JaMychal Green dunk attempt and then blocking him again inside. But Campazzo drove for a layup, drawing a foul on the play and the Knicks were down 89-69 entering the fourth quarter. And before the quarter even began Barrett was whistled for a technical foul — the first of his career and the fourth of the night for the Knicks.