The Denver Nuggets were missing both their point guards, with Emmanuel Mudiay out thanks to an ankle injury and Jameer Nelson unavailable due to illness. Danilo Gallinari joined them on the bench and both Jusuf Nurkic and Wilson Chandler were obviously missing as well. Denver only suited up ten players and played just eight, but behind a career road-best 31 points by Randy Foye and 49 from their three-man bench of Will Barton, Nikola Jokic and Darrell Arthur, Denver pulled out the victory over the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix, 104-96. It was the second game of a back-to-back and the Nuggets were missing an entire starting lineup worth of rotation players. They had every reason to lay down after a heart-breaking loss to the Lakers. Before the game, coach Michael Malone invoked the John Wooden quote: don't whine, don't complain, and don't make excuses. The Nuggets did none of those things, and after the game, this was Malone's feeling:
"In 15 years in the league that's one of the better wins I've been a part of."
Can't argue with that.
The Nuggets came out moving the ball, rotating on defense and with Foye hitting shots, getting Denver out to an 8-2 lead. Gary Harris was limping and bricked his first 3 shots and the Suns tied it at 8 apiece with 6:33 to go as both teams had a chilly start to their shooting. Foye had 9 of the first 11 Nuggets points. A Papanikolaou 3 and a Harris breakaway dunk put the Nuggets up 16-8. Denver and Phoenix traded buckets for a couple of minutes but then turnovers and a Tyson Chandler block led to a mini-run by Phoenix, who closed to 20-18. Darrell Arthur then came in off the bench, fired away and it everything. He put in another 9 points and boosted the Nuggets lead after one quarter to 33-21.
Barton set Jokic up for a nice three at the start of the 2nd quarter after Jokic hustled up a rebound. Darth hit another long 2 to stretch the lead out to 38-21. Faried chased down a dunk on a tip the Nuggets actually lost and back to back 3s from Papanikolaou and Barton took Denver's lead to 50-28 as the Phoenix fans began to boo. The Suns turned up the pressure and physicality, which caused the Nuggets settled for threes they were no longer making. The Nuggets shot only 3 free throws in the half and missed them all, which highlighted their reluctance to drive the paint. Faried hustled up a couple of important rebounds, but the Suns cut it to 13 at 54-41 as Brandon Knight drove inside at will for buckets or free throws, finishing the half with 15 points. In a replay of the Lakers game, the Nuggets gave back a chunk of their lead on a 16-4 run by the Suns that dropped the lead to single digits at to 54-46. The Nuggets had nothing but outside bricks and turnovers until Barton passed for an Arthur dunk with under a minute remaining in the half. Denver committed an offensive foul on an inbounds with 5 seconds to go to turn the ball over and Price hit a 3 at the buzzer, and the Nuggets staggered into halftime up just 6 at 56-50.
Phoenix made their first two shots to start the third quarter to cut the lead to one. Foye missed a technical free throw, hit a 3 but missed his next two and Phoenix tied it up on a dunk at 59-all. Barton came in and committed a couple of turnovers and a foul in short order as Phoenix pulled ahead 66-63, and the game showed all the earmarkings of another third quarter collapse. The Nuggets spine emerged in this game, however. Barton and Jokic had a pair of huge hustle plays, one on a backcourt scramble for the ball and one on a tip drill, then Foye splashed back-to-back threes that retook the lead for Denver on an 14-1 run to get to 77-67. The Nuggets went bigger with Arthur and Jokic and that pressed Phoenix out of the paint. Barton couldn't sink the bucket at the buzzer but lthe Nuggets somehow won the quarter and led 79-72 going into the fourth.
Denver kept the same squad in to start the fourth and extended the lead to 9, with a Papanikolaou block as an exclamation point. After an injury timeout, though, Phoenix came out firing 3s and narrowed the lead to 3. Denver still had plenty of fight but blew three layups in a couple of minutes, leaving them unable to extend the lead as their smaller lineup came back in the game. Faried somehow got an alley-oop tip-in, then Barton hit a 3 and nabbed a steal that turned into a Faried layup for a 95-87 margin. With three minutes to go the Nuggets looked totally gassed but kept fighting for rebounds and points, forcing turnovers even while exhausted. Foye hit yet another 3, earning the most points he's ever scored on the road. The Nuggets got a breather on a reviewed Faried block that was called a goaltend originally but was overturned in Denver's favor with 1:45 to go. A layup by Foye with 42.7 to go got the Nuggets over their magic 100-point barrier and finally shut the door on Phoenix. The final score was 104-96 and a bunch of well-deserved hugs all around for this battered Nuggets squad.
Apparently The Nuggets just needed to lose all their starters. Malone ran a tight eight-man rotation, leaving Hickson and Lauvergne glued to the bench and wearing his available players to the bone. They responded by sharing the ball (26 assists), rebounding at every position (50 boards) and both raining outside shots and fighting inside with their big men (46% shooting, 42 paint points). Randy Foye looked on the verge of passing out at the end of the game but kept throwing up shots like he was vintage Kobe, netting 31 points on 27 shots. Arthur was amazing with a 19-and-10 double-double to go with his defensive effort, and Jokic was a passing and scoring fool in his 22 minutes on the court. Gary Harris was obviously still hurting from his knee tweak last night and his long-distance shot was horrible, but he gutted it out and was a factor defensively in keeping Bledsoe at bay. Mike Miller couldn't shoot to save his life and logged a goose-egg in that department, but his rebounding and assists while he was out there were vital.
This is the effort that Malone wanted the last couple of games, and I'm extremely impressed he was able to get it from the group he had available. The Nuggets wanted to go into the Christmas holiday on a winning note and they pulled it off, back-to-back be damned. That was a win that showed a lot of intestinal fortitude, the kind the Nuggets need to find more of going forward. In a week or two they might be back almost to full strength as far as personnel, but those players that get on the court need to leave everything on the court like this band of Nuggets fighters did.
Foye turned the clock back in ways I doubted he could any longer. This is the leadership he was supposed to be bringing this year, and the reason he keeps getting minutes while J.J. Hickson can't get off the bench even when half the team is injured. Leadership both on the court and on the sideline does matter, and tonight the Nuggets had enough to pull out the victory.
Congratulations to all involved - that was quite the effort and a great palate-cleanser for the last few losses. Thank you for the early Christmas present, Nuggets! I hope everyone has a safe and wonderful holiday.