Bucks Nuggets Basketball

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, looks to drive to the rim as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 25, 2023, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The winners of the last four Most Valuable Player awards met for the first, and only time, this regular season Saturday at Ball Arena.

Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets won the game, 129-106, over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. The winner of the individual matchup was a little harder to determine.

Antetokounmpo, the MVP in 2019 and 2020 and the Finals MVP in 2021, and Jokic, who’s won the last two MVP awards, each finished with 31 points. Jokic did so on 20 shots, while Antetokounmpo took 22. Denver’s superstar took 11 free throws, making 10, while Milwaukee’s went 5 for 7 at the line.

In the first meeting between the two conference leaders, Jokic was one of four Nuggets' starters not to play in January’s game in Milwaukee, as Denver played the night before in New Orleans. Antetokounmpo played Friday in Utah and suited up Saturday for both ends of a back-to-back at altitude.

Jokic won the tip and scored the game’s first points with a mid-range jumper from the baseline. Antetokounmpo got the Bucks on the board with a steal and transition dunk. He made his first four shots before missing. He scored 24 points in the first half and finished with nine rebounds, four assists and four steals to go with his 31 points.

“In the half court, when Giannis has the ball, no one can guard him one-on-one, no one,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said pregame. "Can you show a crowd, be long in the gaps, and get out to all their three-point shooting? … There's a reason the guy is a two-time MVP, and very easily could be a three-time MVP winner. It all starts with him. They've done a hell of a job constructing their roster, putting great shooting around him all over the place.”

Aaron Gordon was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, while Jeff Green stepped up when Gordon rested. Malone also credited the guys around them, saying you can’t guard Milwaukee’s star with one guy.

Jokic found himself matched up with Milwaukee’s star on a defensive possession in the first five minutes and held his own, forcing Antetokounmpo to pass before grabbing the defensive rebound. The Nuggets star finished the first half with 17 points, five assists and a couple of rebounds. He ended the game with 11 assists, six rebounds and a steal to go with his 31 points against Brook Lopez, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

“It’s impossible,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said pregame when asked what he’s learned about guarding Jokic over the years. “We’ve tried a lot of different things, probably like the whole league. He’s a special player. He can beat you with the pass, and that’s maybe what he wants to do, what he’s most comfortable doing. Certainly, scoring, if that’s what he needs to do, that’s what he does. He’s very crafty, clever, plays from lots of different spots. He and (Jamal) Murray and their pick-and-roll game, you know, tough covers. He's a great player and he's a great challenge for us tonight."

The Nuggets fans at Ball Arena serenaded Jokic with chants of “M-V-P” whenever he was at the line.

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“He’s almost unguardable,” Malone said postgame. “He’s proven it. The guy is really hard to guard.”

Jokic has another high-profile matchup on the way with Joel Embiid and the 76ers headed to Denver on Monday.


What happened: Jamal Murray caught fire late in the first quarter, scoring 18 points in the period. but the Nuggets still trailed the Bucks by one to start the second. Milwaukee added a couple of points to the advantage, leading 66-63 at halftime. A Nikola Jokic 3, and a tough finish from Michael Porter Jr. put the Nuggets up three in the middle of the third. Denver took its biggest lead of the game, 97-85, to the fourth quarter after Jeff Green hit a corner 3 in the final seconds of the third. It was a 16-point Denver edge a minute into the fourth, and Milwaukee pulled its starters with the Nuggets up 20 midway through the the final quarter.

The win helped the Nuggets start Sunday with a 3½-game lead over Memphis atop the Western Conference.

What went right: Jaal Murray was a perfect second star. When he shared the court with Jokic, he seemed to prioritize feeding the big fella. When Jokic was off the court, Murray let his shot-making ability take over. That combination helped Murray finished with a complete 26-point, nine-assist and six-rebound night.

What went wrong: Jokic’s teammates did too much rebounding, preventing another triple-double. Jokic finished four rebounds shy. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led Denver with eight rebounds, while Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon grabbed seven apiece. Jokic and Murray each grabbed six. It all worked out just fine, as Denver finished with a 48-40 advantage on the boards.

Highlight of the night: Murray displayed his playmaking ability in a key stretch of the second half. First, Murray penetrated the Milwaukee defense and flipped an overhead pass to Jokic, who hit his first 3 of the night to give the Nuggets the lead. Murray then put a little more power on a pass to Porter Jr., who was under the basket. Porter used every bit of his hangtime to muscle up a layup that increased Denver’s lead on Murray’s seventh assist. Murray’s eighth assist went to Green, who took a couple of dribble before dunking over Giannis Antetokounmpo early in the fourth.

Up next: Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers come to Denver for Monday’s meeting between the two leading candidates for Most Valuable Player.