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Nuggets, Jokic pose challenge for Suns

One MVP down.

One MVP candidate on deck.

The Phoenix Suns were torched by 2017 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook in a 118-102 loss to Oklahoma City in the first game of a season-long seven-game homestand at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Friday. Next the Suns will welcome a top early contender for this season's award when the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic visit Saturday night.

Jokic -- he is Charles Barkley's MVP choice, anyway -- had a triple-double in the Nuggets' first meeting with the Suns this season with 35 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists in the Nuggets' 119-91 victory Oct. 20.

Jokic also had four steals and a blocked shot while making all 11 field-goal attempts, including three 3-pointers, and 11 of 12 free throws in that game. He joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in league history to have a triple-double with at least 30 points without missing a field goal.

"A monster game," Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said then.

The monster is back.

Jokic was just short of his third triple-double of the season when he had 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists before fouling out in a 102-99 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Denver on Friday.

Both teams are playing back-to-back games, and Denver is 3-0 in the second game of back-to-backs this season.

The Suns (9-27) had won five of their last seven games before the Thunder completed a sweep of the four-game season series behind Westbrook's season-high 40 points to go along with 12 rebounds and eight assists.

Denver (22-11) broke a two-game losing streak and has won five of seven. The Nuggets remained in first place in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the Thunder and the Golden State Warriors.

Denver did so while playing short-handed.

Guard Will Barton has not returned from a hip injury suffered in the second quarter of the first game against the Suns, and guard Gary Harris and forward Paul Millsap have missed the last nine and eight games, respectively, because of injuries.

The Nuggets are 5-3 in their absence, with Jokic picking up more of the load.

The 7-foot Jokic is averaging 22.1 points and 10.1 rebounds with six double-doubles in eight games since Dec. 8. He has 20 double-doubles this season.

"What doesn't he do?" Denver guard Jamal Murray told the Nuggets' website.

"I think Nikola has shown everybody in the NBA that with three starters out, he is a most valuable player candidate," coach Michael Malone told reporters.

"We need him to score, he scores 32 (against Dallas on Dec. 18). We need him to rebound, he does that. We need him to facilitate and make plays for his teammates, he does that. Not just from a stats standpoint, but he does it every single night in so many different ways. That's why he's a special player."

Murray had 31 points against San Antonio on Friday and had 26 in the first game against the Suns this season. Nuggets reserve Malik Beasley had 21 points Friday, but he left with an ankle injury and his status for Saturday's game is unknown.

Suns guard Devin Booker had 25 points in the first meeting with the Nuggets as Jokic shut down rookie center Deandre Ayton, who made two field goals and finished with five points.

On Friday, Booker had 25 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, and Ayton had 16 points and nine rebounds against Oklahoma City. But the Suns faded down the stretch and were outscored 37-19 in the fourth quarter.

"They made a run we didn't respond to," said Booker, whose fourth double-double tied his season high set last season.

"They pushed it (lead) to like four or five, and since then, we didn't fight the rest of the game. I don't know if it was fatigue or that first game back from road trips is always tricky. It feels like a road game also.

"We've got another one tomorrow, a really good team coming in here, so we just have to focus forward."

Oklahoma City shot 53.7 percent from the field and dominated the paint, scoring 76 interior points.

"Obviously, the paint points explain the physicality and athleticism they had that we couldn't match, especially when the game was on the line," Kokoskov said.

"We didn't have the physicality and also discipline, which comes to the mental toughness."

Suns reserve forward Kelly Oubre Jr., who provided a spark in the final four games of the recent road trip after being obtained from Washington, had four points in 24 minutes in his first home appearance.

Updated December 29, 2018

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