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Jamal Murray scores 32 to help Nuggets blow by Kings with De’Aaron Fox out due to injury

The Kings without star guard De’Aaron Fox were no match for the surging Denver Nuggets — and they were unable to pull off the 4-0 season sweep of the defending champions.

Far from it.

The Nuggets came at Sacramento with an avalanche over the second and third quarters Wednesday, outscoring the Kings by 35 points en route to a 117-96 victory in front of a raucous crowd at Ball Arena.

The game was so lopsided Kings coach Mike Brown emptied the bench at the start of the fourth quarter with his team down by 28 points.

“I feel like we could have done better with our game plan and stuff against their main guys,” Kings center Domantas Sabonis said afterwards, sporting stitches on the left side of his face after taking a hit from teammate Mason Jones in the fourth quarter. “I feel like it just wasn’t there today.”

When asked to elaborate on his statement about the team’s game plan, Sabonis said “coverages, stuff out there that we switched up, or whatever.”

Wednesday marked the first time Denver had all five of its starters against the Kings this season, and it allowed the Nuggets to avenge their loss 14 days earlier when the Kings stunned them in the final contest before the All-Star break behind 15 fourth-quarter points from Fox.

Denver hasn’t lost since and extended its winning streak to four with an average point differential of 18.

Jamal Murray scored 32 points, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic had a triple-double 14 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, and Aaron Gordon scored 17 points while going 7 of 8 from the floor. Gordon was a game-high plus-40 in 24 minutes through three quarters.

“I think the whole league knows what they’re capable of,” Kings guard Kevin Huerter said. “Jokic might be the best player in the league and they’re capable of going on runs like this. We’ve gotten them three times this year, but we know what that team is and who they can be.”

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) reacts with center Nikola Jokic (15) in the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) reacts with center Nikola Jokic (15) in the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Huerter was asked about the second and third quarters, when Sacramento was outscored 72-37.

“I don’t know if I could put my finger on one (thing),” he said.

Then he showed a rare sense of frustration with his minutes.

“I wish I was out there to help us more though,” he said.

Huerter played 18 minutes and scored four points. He went 2 of 5 from the field with a rebound, two assists and three turnovers. He entered the game in the second quarter at the 8:59 mark with the Kings leading by 11 and exited in favor of Chris Duarte with 3:15 left in the half with Sacramento down four. He came back in for the final possession of the half.

Huerter opened the third quarter on the floor and had a stretch that included a turnover, consecutive missed free throws and a foul before he was subbed out for Malik Monk with 8:12 left.

Huerter never returned to the game and declined to elaborate when asked about his minutes.

The six-year veteran is averaging a career-low 25.3 minutes per game, coinciding with shooting 37% from 3-point range, the second-lowest of his career. He lost his starting job to Duarte in late December and came off the bench for five games before getting his starting job back. He started every game for the Kings last season.

Keegan Murray led the Kings with 21 points while Sabonis had his 41st consecutive double-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Sabonis reentered the game in the fourth quarter with nine rebounds and got the rebound he needed to extend his double-double streak. He said he did not ask back into the game to continue his streak despite the score being lopsided — it was a coach’s decision.

Monk added 14 points off the bench. Duarte scored 18 with 12 coming in garbage time during the fourth quarter.

Brown, who had his postgame news conference before his players spoke in the locker room, praised his reserves for their play late despite the game being out of hand. The Kings outscored Denver 24-17 in the fourth quarter.

“I thought the last group, Mason, Trey (Lyles), Alex (Len), Duarte and Kessler (Edwards), I thought those guys were really good,” Brown said. “I thought they tried to play hard, I thought they tried to play together and I thought they tried to play the right way.”

The combination of Fox’s absence and the Nuggets having their full complement of players did not favor Sacramento, which dropped its second game in a row following Monday’s home loss to the Heat.

“We got to run, play our game in transition and run the play all the way through,” Sabonis said of playing without Fox. “I feel like today we got into some (isolation), which is not our game. We kinda leave that for Fox. We need to start using each other and Denver took advantage of it.”

Fox was out after suffering a left knee contusion during the first half of Monday’s game. Fox was listed as questionable going into the game. He was a full participant in the morning shootaround with a sleeve on his left leg and went through his pregame shooting routine before being ruled out.

It marked the first time Fox missed a game since Dec. 16 against Utah when he sat out with right shoulder irritation, which has lingered ever since. The reigning Clutch Player of the Year acknowledged after the All-Star break he needed the time off to allow his shoulder to heal.

The Kings before Wednesday were 3-3 with Fox out of the lineup. They went 2-3 from Nov. 1 to 10 when Fox missed five straight with an ankle injury, including two blowout losses in Houston, before returning home to beat Portland and Oklahoma City.

Sacramento started Davion Mitchell in place of Fox. Mitchell came into the game shooting 46% from 3-point range over his previous 16 games after being reinserted into the rotation. Mitchell finished with five points in 16 minutes. Brown in the second half tried reserve Keon Ellis to slow Murray, who made 10 of his 13 shots.

The Kings were looking to sweep the season series against the defending NBA champs. Instead, they finished 3-1 against them in the regular season. None of the teams’ four meetings came with both sides at full strength. The Nuggets were missing Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope when they met in the last game Feb. 14 when Fox stole the show with his late scoring.

Sacramento made 7 of 10 from 3-point range in the opening frame, including one at the buzzer from Murray. The Kings shot 5 of 25 from 3 over the final three quarters.

The Nuggets big run started in the second period following Jokic’s return from the bench. Denver went on a 23-6 sprint over 5:10 to erase a 15-point lead and outscored Sacramento 37-20 in the quarter. The Nuggets took a 10-point lead into halftime after Sacramento led by seven after the first.

The Nuggets made 14 of 21 in the second quarter with 13 of their 14 field goals coming off assists. The Kings, meanwhile, missed nine straight 3s, which helped Denver go the other way quickly with 15 fastbreak points.

It was much of the same in the third quarter. Denver again went 14 of 21 from the floor while the Kings made just 6 of 18. The Nuggets won the rebounding battle 11-4 and pushed the lead as high as 32 points. All five Nuggets starters were in double digits through three quarters before Brown waved the white flag.

Duarte left the game early in the second quarter after he appeared to get hit in the face with an elbow from Zeke Nnaji while contesting a layup. Duarte walked to the locker room immediately with a towel over his face but later returned to the game.

The Kings’ mini two-game road trip concludes Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves (42-17), who moved into first place in the Western Conference on Wednesday with a 110-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Upcoming schedule

March 1 at Minnesota Timberwolves

March 4 vs. Chicago Bulls

March 6 at Los Angeles Lakers

March 7 vs. San Antonio Spurs

March 10 vs. Houston Rockets