Tonight, the good Nuggets showed up.
A clearly winded Pacers team, fresh off a late flight from an overtime victory last night in the Sleep Train Arena, succumbed to the altitude and a Nuggets team hungry to snap a 3-game losing streak. The Nuggets can thank the (schedule) Maker that they're given a few of these games a year against an opponent who is physically exhausted and then has to play at altitude, particularly when that opponent comes from the West coast.
Although the Nuggets jumped out to score the first 7 points of the game, they were somewhat sluggish to start the first quarter, still trying to shake the funk that's been haunting them for the last three games. With 3 minutes to go, Brian Shaw called timeout and ripped into the team (according to sideline reporter Blake Olson). The Nuggets responded and ended up outscoring the Pacers 22-18.
In the second quarter, the Nuggets got a huge boost from a Nate Robinson in Big Head mode. Despite a few miscues, he ended up scoring 10 straight and 13 overall in the quarter. When Nate gets hot, very few teams can guard his ability to hit from anywhere on the floor. He was also the recipient of a cringe worthy "Here's to you, Mr. Robinson!" from Nuggets announcer Chris Marlowe (we love you, Chris). Nate and Kenneth Faried helped the Nuggets open up what appeared to be a yawning 19 point lead over a Pacers team that had its collective hands on its hips, outscoring them 55-36 at the half. It was clear that one of Shaw's pointed statements involved playing better defense.
The Pacers opened up the 3rd quarter with a 14-3 run, cutting the Nuggets lead from 19 at the half to just 6. With Hickson providing his usual handwaving at his assignments in the paint, Brian Shaw quickly substituted him for Timofey Mozgov and the Nuggets seemed to stabilize. While I don't believe that Mozgov is the answer in all situations, Shaw's stubborn insistence on sticking with the defense-challenged Hickson against teams with good post players is becoming tiring. They carried a 10 point lead into the 4th, 86-76. Just 3 points shy of the average that the Pacers normally hold teams to in an entire game, the Nuggets offense simply wore down a tired Pacers squad - but they did give up an unsettling 40 points in the 3rd.
The Nuggets immediately opened the 4th quarter with a Mozgov dunk off a lob pass from Quincy Miller. Throughout tonight's contest, Mozgov was a huge boon to the Nuggets interior defense, blocking the Pacers (2 on the night) and contesting shots. He's absolutely the team's best post defender, and Shaw needs to make more use of his talent. The Nuggets could easily replace half of Hickson's minutes, give Moz another 6 minutes per game and give another 6 to Darrell Arthur or Quincy Miller. As bad as Faried's defense is, Hickson's is even worse when you realize we're paying J.J. $4 million a season to post the emptiest double doubles in the league - he had another one tonight, but had the lowest +/- of all the starters at -1. Add that on to the fact that he's shooting just 57% from the free throw line this season, and he's just...not...good.
In a frustratingly familiar process, the Nuggets tightened up and let the Pacers come with 7 points late in the 4th quarter before Roy Hibbert picked up his 6th foul. Another familiar bugaboo in free throws nearly came back to haunt the Nuggets as they missed 16 shots from the charity stripe. The inability to capitalize on their freebees makes these games so much closer and tighter than they need to be for this young team, and absolutely must be an area of emphasis for Shaw throughout the season. Only twice did the Nuggets make both free throws on their trip to the line - and both of those 2/2 trips came from Timofey Mozgov. Not only that, but the Nuggets 16 missed free throws prevented us all from getting tacos! Booooo.
Tonight was a pretty solid win over the best team in the NBA, but the Nuggets had a number of factors tipping the scales in their favor, the Pacers overtime effort the night before foremost amongst them. This game may very well have been different had the Pacers been rested, especially with the ongoing struggles of the Nuggets from the free throw line. Wilson Chandler was solid and finished as the leading scorer with 25 points, with 11 in the first half and 14 in the second. It was good to see some additional run from Quincy Miller and Evan Fournier, though both players had a minimal impact on the game. Tomorrow, they'll travel to the Kings on their own back to back away, where they'll look to scrap against DeMarcus Cousins and the freshly-acquired Rudy Gay.