Short-handed Bulls fall to Nuggets

CHICAGO (AP) — 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.

“The ovations, the fans, the people from Serbia did bring the flags,” Jokic said, “I mean when Serbia is playing this is the atmosphere. Just imagine the whole arena is doing that. The whole Serbian population, people, love basketball.”

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 1 1/2 games of idle Utah for eighth in the Western Conference playoff race.

“Anytime on the road you’re able to build a 40-point lead, your guys are playing at a high level,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

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.

Chicago played without Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine due to 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 per 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.