Nikola Jokic returns after gruesome poke in eye, but Nuggets crushed by Knicks in road trip finale

NEW YORK — The Nuggets’ longest road trip of the season ended with a kick in the butt and a poke in the eye.

Denver trailed by as many as 38 and never led in a 122-84 loss to the Knicks on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, snapping a three-game win streak. The Nuggets (31-15) finish their five-game, 12-day Eastern Conference swing with a 3-2 record. Still, they’ll return to Colorado a little bit bloodied and needing to bounce back when Joel Embiid and the 76ers visit for a Saturday matinee rematch.

Nikola Jokic went to the locker room with a left eye injury after getting poked by Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo with 4:01 left in the second quarter. Jokic collapsed to the court kicking his legs in pain after the play, which resulted in a common foul on DiVincenzo.

The two-time MVP remained down for a few minutes with his hands over his face before rising, staying in to take the free throws, and then checking out of the game. He didn’t return to the bench for the remainder of the half, but he was able to emerge to start the second half with nothing more than a red-looking eye.

Jokic finished the game with 31 points, 11 rebounds and seven turnovers. He shot 13 for 18 and didn’t play in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach and an afternoon tip waiting in Denver. In a blowout reminiscent of the last game of the Nuggets’ other five-game trip this season, they simply didn’t have legs from the jump, and Jokic was their only source of production early. It took until the 4:28 mark of the first quarter for a Nugget other than him to make a shot from the field: Aaron Gordon, with an open dunk resulting from another no-look, behind-the-back pass by Jokic.

By then, it was already 25-10, Knicks. At the end of the quarter, Jokic had collected 13 points and seven rebounds. His teammates were a combined 3 for 15 from the field, with eight points and five rebounds. In that other long trip finale — Black Friday at Houston — Jokic had 14 points and eight boards at the end of the first frame while the rest of the Nuggets were 1 for 16.

Meanwhile, Denver was consistently lapsing in both its perimeter and interior defense. The Knicks had made 7 of 16 shots beyond the arc only four minutes into the second quarter, en route to a 15-for-38 night. They didn’t miss a 2-point attempt until the last 40 seconds of the first. They shot 52.4% for the game, outscoring the Nuggets 22-13 on second chances and 23-5 on fast breaks.

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New York is now 11-2 since trading for O.G. Anunoby, one of the most malleable defenders in the league. The former Toronto Raptor received resounding chants of his initials as he exited in the fourth quarter with 26 points and a remarkable six steals. The Nuggets, one of the best assist-to-turnover teams in the league, were stunted with just 20 assists and 19 turnovers.

Jalen Brunson added 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, 30 minutes after barely missing a spot in the Eastern Conference’s starting lineup announcement for the upcoming All-Star Game.

“Today’s NBA players are all on their phone, so if I said, ‘I don’t think he’s an NBA (All-Star) player,’ then he’s got extra motivation … so he should be an All-Star,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone joked pregame. “On a serious note, he’s a tremendous player. He can hurt you from the 3-point line. He gets to the basket. Very shifty, crafty in pick-and-rolls. … I’d be hard-pressed to find guys that are ahead of him to be worthy of All-Star position.”

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