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Nikola Jokic is a tall order that the Wizards can’t quite meet

Nuggets 113, Wizards 104

The Nuggets' Nikola Jokic backs down the Wizards' Daniel Gafford in the first half Sunday night at Capital One Arena. (Nick Wass/AP)
5 min

His return was welcome news for the Washington Wizards, but starting center Daniel Gafford may have preferred a gentler reintroduction to the court after he missed two games with a concussion. Attempting to defend Nikola Jokic is a head-spinning challenge. Guarding him one-on-one is a separate circle of hell.

Fresh off leading Denver to a win in a barnburner in Boston two days earlier, Jokic didn’t miss a beat Sunday night at Capital One Arena as the defending champion Nuggets prevailed, 113-104, with less fuss this time. The two-time MVP galloped up and down the court all game — including in the fourth quarter, when his talents were needed after the Wizards’ bench unit, playing alongside Kyle Kuzma, had narrowed the deficit to nine with seven minutes to play.

Denver’s starters had little issue landing the plane. Jokic finished with a season-high 42 points to go with 12 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks before he stooped down after the final whistle to wrap both of his tree-trunk arms around friend and former coach Wes Unseld Jr. for a hug.

He isn’t quite so cuddly during games.

“I kind of knew how my night was going to be, so I really just put my hard hat on,” said Gafford, who’s listed as an inch shorter than Jokic but 50 pounds lighter. “… I feel like I came out and tried to have [the] maximum level of aggression. At the end of the day, Jokic, he’s a big guy, and trying to match his physicality was one of the main things that I wanted to go out and see if I could improve on.”

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Considering his individual matchup, Gafford fared well enough in his return — he had 15 points and seven rebounds — but in single coverage, there was only so much he could do.

“That was the main thing — just trying to keep frustration … away from this game,” he said. “I needed all mental focus to just be on trying to find some way to stop him.”

The Wizards’ defense had no match for Jokic or Michael Porter Jr. (19 points, five rebounds) in the early going. Washington (7-35) was flatter than ideal on the second night of a back-to-back; though the Wizards showed signs of life late, the game was won with a run by the Nuggets (30-14) that straddled halftime and turned a one-point edge into a 16-point lead.

Kuzma had 17 points, six rebounds and seven assists for the Wizards, who have lost 10 of 11. Tyus Jones had 15 points and 13 assists.

Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ loss:

Kuzma’s scoring dips

Kuzma said after the Wizards’ most recent win, on Jan. 13 in Atlanta, that he hasn’t been playing up to par of late. Sunday was another example — he didn’t have his usual firepower despite hitting 7 of 13 shots from the field, a performance that was in line with his recent numbers. His scoring has dipped from 23.1 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting through Dec. 31 to 17.9 points on 40.8 percent shooting in January, excluding Sunday’s bout.

“Some of that was a string of games, outside of these last two, the way he was being guarded affected overall options, took away some of his easier looks,” Unseld said. “Teams were covering him a certain way that takes away some of his strengths.”

Positives off the bench

For the second game in a row, a group of mostly second-unit players made up ground in the fourth quarter. Delon Wright, Corey Kispert, Landry Shamet, Bilal Coulibaly and Marvin Bagley III measured up well against the Nuggets’ bench and brought Washington within single digits before Denver Coach Michael Malone put his starters back in and Unseld substituted in response.

The Wizards’ bench outscored Denver’s 49-12. During his third game in a Wizards uniform, Bagley had 14 points and seven rebounds. Shamet added 14 points and three assists.

The second unit is particularly adept at adjusting if a play falls apart, creating a second or third scoring opportunity on the fly.

“Ball doesn’t stick,” Shamet said when asked what the bench bunch has been doing well. “For the most part, decision-making, knowing who to bring into an action and what to do just to create some offense. . . . That’s where we have to continue to keep growing as a team, as a collective.”

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Davis heads to G League

The Wizards assigned guard Johnny Davis to the Capital City Go-Go in what Unseld categorized as an opportunity to “reset a little bit” after he missed 12 games in December and played sporadically this month.

“He missed a chunk of time with injury and then had an illness, so just trying to get his rhythm,” Unseld said Saturday. “ … Just another opportunity, using the G League as a return-to-play rule.”

Davis, the Wizards’ 2022 lottery pick at No. 10 overall, hasn’t played more than six minutes in a game since Nov. 29 at Orlando. He could see more consistent playing time in the second half of the season; Washington is expected to focus even more on its younger players.