The Denver Nuggets finally did everything coach Michael Malone asked of them. They played defense, passed the ball, hit free throws, hustled, shot and drove the ball for 48 minutes, overcoming some late turnovers and questionable coaching decisions to stave off Toronto's last-ditch comeback attempt by one point and net a wire-to-wire victory, 106-105. The Raptors started off sluggishly, finishing the first quarter down 29-19 and maintaining that 10 point deficit at the half as both teams were on a back-to-back, but even in the second half the Nuggets were able to answer Toronto's runs with some of their own. In the end it came down to Denver's perfect 18-for-18 performance from the charity stripe to close the deal - and they needed every one. Barton hit two free-throws with 2 seconds left, making the half-court three pointer that Kyle Lowry swished as time expired irrelevant.
#Nuggets went 18-18 from the line. It was the 13th time since 63-64' Denver made all of their FT's, first time since 3/9/01— NuggetsPR (@NuggetsPR) December 4, 2015
The Nuggets had no answer for DeMar DeRozan who put up 34 points along with 5 rebounds and 5 assists, but had just enough answers for all the other questions as Denver split the duties up by quarters. Darrell Arthur had a monster first quarter with 12 of his 19 points in the frame, then Will Barton followed with threes and drives to get 12 of his team-high 22 in the second. Gallinari exploded in the third with 11 of his 21, and then Barton iced the game with clutch free throws down the stretch to take home the victory.
Emmanuel Mudiay had 8 assists in the first half as the team passed its way to 30 overall, but was benched down the stretch (along with the other youngsters Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic). Lauvergne had a double-double with 14/10 and Jokic netted 8 points and 6 boards in just 14 minutes, but the team needed this win and Malone went exclusively to his veteran unit to close the deal. If the game had been 20 seconds longer that might have been a mistake, but it all worked out in the end.
Still, there were many encouraging sights tonight amongst vets and kids alike.
Mudiay to Jokic! https://t.co/L3gvvjop9a— Kayla Osby (@nuggetchica) December 4, 2015
Three questions answered:
1) Can anyone shoot? Apparently the Nuggets can, at least when they're north of the border. They finished at 47% from the field and 12-of-27 from three-point range. They hit all their free throws as previously mentioned, and had 30 assists against 12 turnovers - so guys were hitting shots in rhythm. I said before the game that the frontcourt was gonna have to carry water with the backcourt (other than Barton) giving basically nothing as scorers.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Jameer Nelson, Randy Foye: 19 points
Darrell Arthur, Joffrey Lauvergne, Nikola Jokic: 41 points
The frontcourt players made their layups and their distance shots. Gallinari hit some incredibly hard, momentum-swinging threes and turnaround, off-balance jumpers, and Barton was everywhere. He was a picture of perfectly-but-barely leashed aggression, and him being fourth in the league in bench scoring is no accident. Barton is coming into his own, and the huge hug that Gallinari gave him after winning the game spoke volumes about Will's place on this team going forward.
Can the backcourt contribute more? If you consider Barton a shooting guard at this point in the Nuggets' offense then he's more than pulling his own weight, but the rest of the guards did everything but score. Mudiay's first half assists were huge in building a 10 point halftime lead. The Raptors made a curious decision to defend Emmanuel hard on the perimeter, at which point he simply drove past his defenders and sliced up the defense with pinpoint passes. It offered a glimpse of what the Nuggets could look like in a couple of years once Mudiay's jumpshot gets in the vicinity of "reliable" and opponents are forced to do that on a regular basis.
The Nuggets had those 30 assists for the game with just four fastbreak points, which meant the offense was run in the half court and the guards did a good job of moving the ball and probing for weaknesses. Nelson and Foye both contributed on the defensive end on a few final possessions, even if their earlier turnovers in the fourth quarter were one reason the game was so close. Malone leaving the outcome in the hands of his veterans didn't feel any safer when they were making rookie mistakes, but Foye drove the ball to the hoop late and hit his free throws. Every point mattered, whether scored on offense or prevented with defense.
Can Malone help more his coaching? This one was more dicey. Between the All-Vet end of game lineup that nearly coughed up a double-digit lead, to the horrible decision to have Gallinari in-bound the ball in the last minute to Will Barton - a play that resulted in a turnover - the questionable decisions from the bench abounded. Malone, to his credit, pulled an immediate mea culpa on the court for the latter call:
Oh, cool moment. After that disastrous turnover, Malone goes to Gallo, says "My fault" for having Gallo inbound.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) December 4, 2015
It's a learning process for everyone. There was so much right with this game for the first three and a half quarters that it's hard to get upset with Malone. Combined with the three and a half quarters of good basketball against the Bulls, 7 of the last 8 quarters have shown a glimmer of what Malone wants from his team - and that they might actually be able to deliver it, especially when they finally get healthy. The ball came up court faster the last couple of nights even if it didn't really qualify as a break-neck pace, and the 56 combined assists gave a glimmer of hope that the Denver's shooting woes and inability to convert looks might finally be drawing to a close.
The Nuggets won while still missing three future starters (Harris, Faried and Nurkic), and they did it on a back to back on the road. They were desperate, but instead of playing hero ball they played team basketball for 48 minutes, and it finally worked out. That's the definition of coaching improvement, isn't it?
The streak is over. Congratulations, Nuggets - you earned this one.