DENVER - Neither the Denver Nuggets nor the Chicago Bulls had their All-Star Nikolas in the middle for Friday’s game at Ball Arena, but that did little to dull the drama.
With no shortage of big plays and bigger performances in front of a crowd split between the two fan bases, the atmosphere at Ball Arena did not reflect the absence of two All-Stars in Chicago’s 114-108 win over the injury-riddled Nuggets.
“I didn’t know there was so many Chicagoans in Denver,” Aaron Gordon said.
“We’d like to hear a little bit more from our side. I think the fans have been great all year. It was a good atmosphere, though.”
Zach LaVine gave the visiting fans a lot to cheer for, putting up a game-high 36 points on 24 shots, a couple of which were highlight dunks and deep 3.
Gordon did his best Nikola Jokic impression with Denver’s star out with a wrist sprain, posting 28 points on 12 shots and adding nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
“That’s the Aaron Gordon that we all know,” Dozier said. “That’s why he’s here for us. We know that he’s capable of that night in and night out. When he has that mindset, that mentality to go out and do that, we’re such a better team. I feel like he takes us to the next level.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said his message to Gordon, who scored 10 points in the first quarter, was not to let his defender off the hook throughout the night.
“Basically, he’s just telling me to be aggressive, get to the cup, use my body to my advantage, use my strength and what I’ve been gifted with and don’t settle for jumpers unless I have to,” Gordon explained.
Will Barton III added 23 points, while Facundo Campazzo hit 4 of 5 from 3-point range and finished with 16 points off Denver’s bench.
There were a couple of loud “Let’s Go Bulls” chants from a sizeable Chicago contingent as the visitors increased their lead in the third quarter. A strong defensive play from Alex Caruso prompted the first chant, while a powerful dunk from LaVine produced the second and put the Bulls up 12.
“I wasn’t sure if we were at the United Center or Ball Arena,” Malone said. “So, yeah, the Bulls fans were out in full force tonight. I gave the crowd that was here supporting us credit for trying to drown them out.”
The Denver faithful answered with “Let’s Go Nuggets” chants after rookie Bones Hyland hit a 3, making it a five-point Bulls lead midway through the fourth. The cheers grew louder as the Nuggets closed within three points a few times in the final minutes before Denver came up short.
“Our fans got going toward the end. We definitely heard them (being) loud,” Nuggets wing PJ Dozier said after finishing with nine points and 10 rebounds. “It was definitely a lot of Chicago fans in the building, but it was definitely a good atmosphere for a Friday night for us, especially on a back-to-back.”
Malone announced pregame that Jokic, who started the day as questionable, would not play against the Bulls. Jokic left the court a few minutes early in Thursday’s frustrating loss to the 76ers.
“I don’t think this is anything that is a long-term situation, but we’ll have to wait and see,” Malone said prior to Friday’s game.
Chicago was without Nikola Vucevic, a two-time All-Star with the Orlando Magic, due to the league’s health and safety protocols.
The Nuggets led by as many as 12 in the first quarter after Monte Morris hit a pull-up jumper, but Chicago answered with a 13-0 run in the final minutes of the quarter.
Barton’s highlight crossover and three-point play allowed the Nuggets to regain the lead early in the second. The veteran wing finished another layup in the final seconds of the quarter to cut Chicago’s advantage to one at halftime.
The Bulls scored the first eight points of the third quarter and led by 10 to start the fourth quarter before the drama really picked up. DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 26 points and made all 12 of his free throws put the game away from the free throw line in the final minute.
Afterward, Malone wasn’t pleased with Chicago’s 17 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points or the Bulls’ 19 points off 14 Denver turnovers, but the coach couldn’t fault the effort.
“I thought our players played a style of basketball … that warranted the crowd support that they got, because if I’m a fan, I want to see a group of guys that go out there, competes and plays the right way,” Malone said. “I really felt we did that tonight.”
The Nuggets’ coach said it was too early to know if Jokic would be available when Denver returns to action Sunday at Phoenix.