CHICAGO – It started when Nikola Jokic was introduced with Denver’s starting lineup, and the cheering continued throughout the night. There were chants of “Serbia! Serbia!”
Jokic felt right at home in Chicago.
The 7-foot center had 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists on “Serbian Heritage Night,” leading the Nuggets to a runaway 135-102 victory over the Bulls on Wednesday.
Denver shot 61.4 percent (51 for 83) from the field and had seven players score in double figures. Paul Millsap had 22 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes, and Wilson Chandler made five of the Nuggets’ 20 3-pointers on his way to 19 points.
The Nuggets (39-33) led by as many as 46 while improving to 1-2 on a seven-game trip. They also pulled within 1½ games of idle Utah for eighth in the Western Conference playoff race.
Jokic went 9 for 11 from the field and made each of his two 3-point tries. He called the warm reception “really, really cool,” and his teammates also got a kick out of the Serbian contingent in the crowd of 20,671.
“It was a home game for him,” a grinning Millsap said. “Definitely a home game for him. I see why he was feeling it out there.”
Cristiano Felicio scored 16 points for the Bulls (24-47), who have dropped four of five. Bobby Portis had 15 points and eight rebounds, and Noah Vonleh finished with 14 points.
“We are not coming out with any type of edge whatsoever, and we’re allowing teams to gain confidence in games, and it just goes downhill from there,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
The Bulls played without Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine because of injuries, and veteran center Robin Lopez did not dress. Dunn has a right toe sprain, Markkanen has been bothered by lower back spasms, and LaVine is out with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
LaVine (16.7 points a game), Markkanen (14.9) and Dunn (13.4) are the Bulls’ top three scorers after Nikola Mirotic was traded to New Orleans last month.
“When you lose, it hurts until midnight,” Portis said. “Then, when midnight comes, you worry about the next game.”
The Nuggets opened a 33-23 lead on Jokic’s layup with 1:15 left in the first quarter and maintained a double-digit advantage for the rest of the game. Once a fast-shooting start for the Bulls wore off, it was never in doubt.
The lead ballooned to 20 for the first time on Chandler’s layup with 5:52 left in the first half. It got up to 30 when Jokic and Will Barton hit consecutive 3-pointers, making it 74-44 with 58.2 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Jokic then made a slick pass to set up Jamal Murray’s three-point play, helping Denver to a 77-46 halftime lead. The Nuggets shot 68.3 percent (28 for 41) from the field in their highest-scoring first half of the season.
PLAYING IT COY
The playoff race doesn’t mean very much for lowly Chicago as the season winds down. It’s the results for the teams at the bottom of the standings that affect the Bulls in terms of positioning for their pick in the draft lottery.
Asked if he was scoreboard watching for the bottom of the NBA, a chuckling Hoiberg responded: “I look at the scores. I follow the box scores very closely, as all coaches do at this time of year.”
Nuggets: G Gary Harris (strained right knee) missed his third consecutive game. Malone called a Monday return at Philadelphia a “best-case scenario.” ... Barton and Murray each had 16 points. Reserve Devin Harris scored 14, and Trey Lyles had 10. ... The Nuggets swept the season series for the second straight year.
Bulls: G Antonio Blakeney had six points on 3-for-10 shooting after he was listed as questionable due to a left wrist sprain. ... The Bulls made their first four 3-point attempts and finished 13 for 38 from beyond the arc. They went 3 for 30 from long range during Monday night’s 110-92 loss to the New York Knicks.
Nuggets: Visit Washington on Friday night. Denver lost 109-104 to the Wizards on Oct. 23.
Bulls: Host Milwaukee on Friday night in the finale of their season series. The Bulls won two of the previous three matchups, but lost 110-96 in their last meeting on Jan. 28.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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