The Denver Nuggets continued their losing streak Wednesday night, dropping a close game to the Chicago Bulls, 99-90. Pau Gasol finished with 26 points and 19 rebounds, with key jump shots down the stretch that put the Nuggets away. Kenneth Faried finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds, and Will Barton had 16 points and 8 rebounds off the bench.
The game opened with a ton of action from both teams' bigs, as Gasol and Nikola Mirotic scored the first 7 points for the Bulls and Faried and Nikola Jokic scored the first 7 for the Nuggets, including a three by Jokic to put Denver on the board. Most of the first quarter remained close, as Gasol did the majority of the damage for Chicago (he finished the quarter with 12 points). Mirotic had to leave the game in the 1st when he took an elbow to the face after a nice finish at the rim by Emmanuel Mudiay, and he never returned after being diagnosed with a concussion. Still, the Bulls would go on an 8-0 run afterwards as the Nuggets struggled to make shots and find an answer for Gasol. The quarter ended with a score of 28-21. The Nuggets kept the second quarter relatively close behind Faried and Joffrey Lauvergne's good play inside, until the Bulls were able to expand the lead to 11 points. The Nuggets closed out the quarter with a 6-0 run, however, to put the score at 51-46 at halftime.
The second half opened with Joakim Noah replacing Mirotic as a starter while J.J. Hickson curiously replaced Jokic. Second-chance points from the Bulls (they had 18 in the first half) continued to hurt the Nuggets in the third quarter, allowing the Bulls to push their lead back up to 7. The Nuggets continued to get good production inside from the Manimal, however, and after Darrell Arthur came in late in the quarter and hit some jump shots, the Nuggets finally had the lead and kept it going into the fourth, 72-68. The Nuggets had a breakdown in the fourth quarter, though, and the Bulls, after five straight second-chance points, quickly regained the lead. Despite good play from Barton off the bench, the Nuggets fell behind by 8 points after they settled for bad shots and let Gasol hit easy jumpers. They were never able to catch up, losing the fourth quarter 31-18.
Box score via espn.com
Key component: Second-chance points for the Bulls
The Nuggets gave up 30 second-chance points, behind 15 offensive rebounds from the Bulls. Although the bigs of Denver did a good job keeping the Nuggets into this game on offense, they could not keep Noah and Taj Gibson off the boards. Noah had 5 offensive rebounds and Gibson had 3. It seemed that too many times the Nuggets would make a good defensive stop, only to give up the rebound and allow the Bulls to score. At one crucial point late in the game, the Nuggets gave up five straight second-chance points, which contributed to the Bulls pulling away in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets were also out-rebounded as a whole in this game, 62-49, led by 19 rebounds from Gasol. This area probably played a huge factor in Malone electing to play Hickson over Jokic in the second half, as well.
Guards continue to struggle
It was extremely apparent in this game that the Nuggets are lacking serious production from the guard position, especially with Gary Harris still out with a concussion. Jameer Nelson, Randy Foye and Mudiay combined for only 9 points, and 3/20 shooting from the field. The majority of the points on offense came from the frontcourt in this game, and with the exception of Barton, the Nuggets have nobody in the backcourt to ease the load. This is putting a lot of pressure on the bigs to do it all, especially against a dominant opposing frontcourt such as the Bulls have in Gasol, Noah and Gibson. Mudiay had another tough game from the field, shooting 2/13, and Nelson had 0 points to back him up at the same position. With Jokic yet to earn the complete trust from Malone when the team is getting out-rebounded, and Lauvergne still shaking off the rust from his back injury, the guards need to step up more than ever. To make matters worse, Faried appeared to injure his leg at the end of the game. The lack of guard production is a major concern for the Nuggets going forward, and it will have to be rectified if they plan on breaking this losing streak anytime soon.
Key stat: The Nuggets went 13/22 from the free throw line...missing out on 9 points. Coincidentally, they lost the game by a deficit of 9 points. It's the little things that count when you're trying to get a win in a close game.