The Associated Press
DENVER–In the fourth quarter, Jamal Murray’s shots finally started falling.
“About time,” the Denver guard said.
About time, too, to take the pesky Nuggets as a serious threat.
Nikola Jokic scored 26 points, and Murray had 15 of his 19 in the fourth quarter, as the banged-up Nuggets rallied past the equally banged-up Toronto Raptors 95-86 last night in a battle between conference leaders.
Trailing 70-57 in the third quarter, the Nuggets went on a 23-2 run to send them to their 10th win in 12 games and retain a slim lead over Golden State in the Western Conference.
This marks the latest the Nuggets (20-9) have been in first place in the West since Dec. 18, 1984, according to information by Elias Sports Bureau.
“It’s December,” Mason Plumlee said. “It’s a long way to go.”
Still, they’ve now beaten the Raptors (twice), Golden State, and Boston.
“I guess maybe it says we’re the best team for the time being,” said Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone.
“There are a lot of games left,” he stressed. “I think one thing we’ve done a really good job of is tempering our own excitement.”
Kawhi Leonard had 29 points and 14 rebounds for the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors, who finished 2-2 on their western trip.
They still own the league’s best mark at 23-9.
Murray led the charge with eight-straight points early in the fourth quarter. The defence stepped up, too, as the Raptors didn’t score their first field goal in the final quarter until Leonard’s dunk with 7:42 to go.
Toronto pulled to within 86-83 with 3:28 left but Plumlee’s easy bucket gave Denver some breathing room.
The Raptors were just 4-of-23 from the field in the fourth quarter, including 1-of-13 from three-point land.
More alarming to Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse was that Leonard only had four free throws despite all his work around the rim.
“You can’t tell me one of the best players in the league takes a hundred hits in that game and shoots four free throws,” Nurse said.
“It’s been going on all year,” he noted. “I do not understand why they are letting everybody play one of the best players in the league so physically.
“I do not understand.”
Leonard agreed but shrugged it off.
“It’s been very physical. I just go with the next play,” he remarked. “I pride myself on just keep moving and keep going.”
Both teams had several key players on the bench due to injuries. The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry (thigh), Pascal Siakam (back), Fred VanVleet (back), and Jonas Valanciunas (thumb).
The Nuggets didn’t have Will Barton (right hip/core muscle surgery), Gary Harris (hip), and Paul Millsap (big toe).
Not that Malone gave it much thought.
“Teams look at us right now with players out, and they think they can show up and beat us,” he said. “We’ve shown teams, ‘No, that’s not the case.’
“We have more than enough players that are going to go out there and battle and compete.”
The Nuggets beat the Raptors 106-103 on Dec. 3 in Toronto. In that game, Jokic had 23 points, 15 assists, and 11 rebounds.
Jokic was a handful again. He also had nine rebounds.
“He’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” Malone said. “He’s our franchise player.”
Nurse, meanwhile, doesn’t expect Lowry or Siakam to miss much time.
Lowry sat out his second game with a bruised thigh while Siakam was sidelined after experiencing back stiffness following a hard fall in Portland.
“There’s nothing seriously wrong with either one of them,” Nurse noted. “There’s just some soreness.”
The Raptors next host Indiana on Wednesday.