MILWAUKEE (The Sports Xchange) – For the second straight night, the Denver Nuggets looked like a team on a mission to make the playoffs, and the Milwaukee Bucks appeared ready to head in the opposite direction.
Denver used a dominant first half to earn a 110-98 victory over the Bucks on Wednesday night, completing a back-to-back sweep that began with a rout of Chicago on Tuesday.
The Nuggets matched their season best for fewest points allowed in a half and led by as many as 29 points in the first half before taking a 63-37 advantage into the break.
“I thought we came out of the gate with more energy,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That was something that we talked about as our issue wthis year when we’ve struggled in the second night of back-to-backs, kind of giving into the mental fatigue.
“It was a great first half. The end of the game was nothing we are excited about, but we did enough to close it out and get the back-to-back win.”
Nikola Jokic scored 13 points with 14 rebounds and 10 assists for his fourth career triple-double and his second in as many games. Danilo Gallinari scored 18 of his game-high 22 points in the first half and Gary Harris finished with 14 points.
The Bucks cut a 31-point third-quarter deficit to 90-77 on a jumper by Matthew Dellavedova with 8:41 to play. Milwaukee was within 98-86 before Jamal Murray ended any hopes of a comeback with a 3-pointer to make it 101-86 with 5:13 remaining.
Denver started 8 of 9 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, to take an 18-5 lead. Gallinari scored nine points over the first 4 minutes, 43 seconds, finishing with 11 points for the quarter.
“We had a lot of energy and we were playing the right way,” Gallinari said. “We were playing good defense. We were able to make a run.”
Milwaukee would not pull to within single digits the rest of the way, shooting 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the first quarter and 15 for 49 (30.6 percent) in the first half.
“The first quarter put us in a hole,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “But we’ve been there before and we’ve fought. It just took us until after halftime to fight.”
One positive for the Bucks was the performance of Khris Middleton, who was playing in just his seventh game since returning from a torn left hamstring that kept him out of Milwaukee’s first 50 games.
Middleton scored 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts.
“If we want to be in the playoffs we have to play much better and much harder,” Middleton said. “We have to compete and not have games where we are down 30 at home.”
Malcolm Brogdon added 17 points and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dellavedova each scored 15 points for Milwaukee, which stayed two games back of Detroit for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I think there are a lot of things that could distract us that we could put the blame on but at the end of the day we’re not playing as hard as we need to,” Brogdon said. “We’re not executing like we need to. We’re not playing like we do in practice.
“Regardless of the injuries and regardless of the switching of the lineups, we have to come out ready to play.”
Denver entered two games in front of Sacramento for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Kings were scheduled to host Brooklyn on Wednesday night.
“We’re just trying to make the playoffs,” Murray said. “We’re doing a lot more on defense and communicating more. Everybody is just more locked in.”
NOTES: Milwaukee G Rashad Vaughn made his first start of the season as part of a starting lineup shakeup by Bucks coach Jason Kidd. Malcolm Brogdon started at point guard in place of Matthew Dellavedova. Vaughn was pulled after just five minutes and did not return. … Denver G Jameer Nelson missed Wednesday’s game due to an illness. Rookie G Jamal Murray took his place in the starting lineup … NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was honored at halftime for receiving the Presidential Medal of Honor … G Axel Toupane made his debut with the Bucks, going scoreless in four minutes … Bucks F Thon Maker and Murray were high school teammates in 2015 at Orangeville Prep in Canada.