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Jokic dominates, as the Nuggets look to manipulate the standings

Nuggets coach Michael Malone has said his team doesn’t skip steps. His center, Nikola Jokic, doesn’t skip games.

The likely NBA MVP, Jokic scored 16 points in the first quarter on Thursday in Minnesota en route to a 31-point outing. Jokic, who played 32 minutes and collected 14 rebounds to lead the team in both categories, could have used the night off and joined Michael Porter Jr. on the bench as the Nuggets began their now-annual efforts to manipulate the playoff standings in the final games as best as they’re able to ensure a favorable matchup… not that they’d admit it, of course.

In what’s sure to be an abomination of a game on Friday, the Nuggets will take on a Detroit Pistons team that might have trouble fielding the minimum number of players required to play. The Pistons, the worst team in the Eastern Conference, have likely been more focused on upcoming tee times than basketball for the last couple of weeks — but the Nuggets aren’t in any hurry to beat them.

Given that the Nuggets can’t fall any further than fourth in the playoff standings and that the Clippers have a pair of hilariously easy games to close out the season, the only game left that matters on the schedule is Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers, who might need a win to claim a top-six spot and push the Los Angeles Lakers into the league’s first play-in playoff tournament.

Lakers star LeBron James has railed against the tournament, and the Lakers organization has treated the notion of having to participate all but a personal affront. If that’s the case, the Nuggets would be delighted to hand the game to the Blazers and take the “L” on the way out.

Rightly, head coach Michael Malone has no sympathy for the Lakers, or anyone else, for that matter. After all, his own team — the league’s best in the last two months — is constantly overlooked.

“Listen, Nikola doesn’t get respect. The Nuggets don’t get respect. I don’t get respect. Who cares? All I care about is us staying together, us finding ways to win, and continuing to prove people wrong, which I think we’ve done a great job of,” Malone said. “I don’t know if there’s been a more resilient team in the last few years.”

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NEXT UP: Nuggets (46-24) at Pistons (20-50) | Friday, May 14 at 6:00 p.m.

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NOTES

• JaVale McGee started for the first time since his return to the Nuggets, lining up alongside Nikola Jokic in a two-big alignment that paid immediate dividends. McGee had 12 points and 13 rebounds, and after the game, suggested that the Nuggets could go back to that alignment to combat certain opponents in the playoffs. “I definitely think this could be a lineup in the future, especially with teams that play two bigs,” he said. “I definitely feel like it gives (Jokic) some time off his legs on the defensive end… He doesn’t have to worry about it. He can just do what he does on offense.”

• Monte Morris sat out Thursday’s game due the Nuggets’ reluctance to play him in a back-to-back so soon after returning from injury. Morris went to high school in Flint, Mich., so coach Michael Malone will have Morris play against Detroit Friday in front of friends and family.

• Head coach Michael Malone doesn’t expect either Will Barton or P.J. Dozier to return from injuries prior to the start of playoffs, noting that Barton is closer to a return than Dozier.

• The Nuggets have won 11 straight games against the Timberwolves.

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THE FINAL WORD

“I think we can go with a lot of different options. As we approach the playoffs with now two games to go, we can try some more different things.” — Michael Malone, on Nikola Jokic and JaVale McGee starting together on Thursday

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ROTATION (MINUTES)

Starters
G Facundo Campazzo (33)
G Austin Rivers (31)
F Aaron Gordon (30)
C JaVale McGee (24)
C Nikola Jokic (32)

Bench
F JaMychal Green (20)
F Paul Millsap (19)
F Vlatko Cancar (18)
G Markus Howard (17)
G Shaquille Harrison (15)
G Monte Morris (DNP-CD)
F Michael Porter Jr. (DNP-CD)
F Bol Bol (DNP-CD)
F Zeke Nnaji (DNP-CD)

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INJURY WATCH

• P.J. Dozier (right hip tightness) left the May 3 game and is out indefinitely.
• Zeke Nnaji (ankle) missed the May 3 game and is day-to-day.
• Will Barton (hamstring) was injured on Apr. 23. Coach Michael Malone said Barton will be out “for the foreseeable future” on Apr. 24. It seems unlikely that he will be available until the playoffs, at the earliest.
• Jamal Murray (torn left ACL) was injured in the final minute of the Apr. 12 game. His season is over, and realistically, Murray will be out until at least the 2022 All-Star break.

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Shawn Drotar is the host of “The Fan Late Night with Shawn Drotar;” weeknights from 10:00 p.m. to midnight — only on 104.3 The Fan