The Denver Nuggets managed just their sixth home win of the season, defeating the Charlotte Hornets 95-92 despite allowing two 3-point attempts to tie at the end of the game. It was a back-and-forth affair with Danilo Gallinari leading all scorers with 27 points (nobody else for either team had more than 15).
It was a strange evening all around. Denver's leading assist man was center Nikola Jokic with 9, and Emmanuel Mudiay led the team in minutes-played with 39 despite missing the last month with an ankle injury. Neither Jokic nor Jusuf Nurkic played in the last four minutes of the game as a 10 point lead dwindled to three, but the Nuggets managed to play good enough defense on the last possession - despite allowing those two contested threes - to escape with the win even though they didn't score in the final four minutes. Charlotte efforts were paced by Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lamb who each scored 15 in a losing cause.
Mudiay and Jokic started alongside Gary Harris, Darrell Arthur and Gallo. The Nuggets went inside early with Harris and Gallo while Jokic manned the point duties from the elbow and dished six assists in the quarter. Gallo hit a 3 to put Denver up 8-7 early but Zeller's 6 early points in the paint paced Charlotte. Mudiay nailed his first shot in a month at the 9-minute mark and looked pretty composed for all his time on the bench recently. Gallo's drives in the paint and Mudiay's 3 (also assisted and screened by Gallo) could only offset Charlotte's threes and easy paint buckets as Charlotte retook the lead at 16-15. Mudiay drove the hoop for the lead again, then led a great passing sequence that ended in a deep shot from Gallo, and the offense looked healthy under the direction of this group of starters as the lead stretched to 27-20. The Nuggets blew two layups with under a minute to go but their interior defense strengthened with Nurkic in the game and Nurk's layup in traffic put the Nuggets up 36-26 after one.
Spencer Hawes started the quarter with a technical after Nurkic made him miss a shot. Hawes turned it over and Nurkic went right over him for an easy shot from the other end. The Nuggets missed a few shots as Charlotte closed to 39-32, then Nurkic picked up a technical for pounding the ball after being upset with himself on a fast break. He was benched for the rest of the half, perhaps for that or perhaps because he was winded, but it hurt Denver's interior defense.
A three and an aggressive layup out of a Mudiay turnover by Charlotte cut the lead to 4, 41-37. Denver's offense devolved into dribbling, turnovers and ineffective shots by the Nuggets while Charlotte took over the passing and cutting duties. The Hornets tied the score at 41 as the Nuggets had only 5 points with 6 minutes left in the quarter. No Nugget could sink a shot (1-for-12, 6 turnovers in the first 8 minutes of the 2nd quarter) and Charlotte pushed the lead to 47-41 until Gallo grannied a finger roll off the backboard to get a bucket. IThat stopped a 21-2 run by Charlotte. Gary Harris followed with a monster 1-handed dunk to close it to 2, putting an exclamation point on an aggressive first half for him. Foye exchanged threes with Nicolas Batum, but Will Barton's blown layup at the buzzer left Charlotte in the lead at 56-53 at halftime.
Charlotte started the third with a 3 and a layup to get out to their biggest lead at 8. Jokic made a nice assist on Gallo's three-point play, then twisted for a layup of his own off a tough Mudiay pass to close the lead down to one. Gallo and Harris held down the early second half scoring duties until Mudiay drove the lane on a coast-to-coast to get the Nuggets back up by one, 68-67. Mudiay then blew a one-on-one fastbreak but a Jokic block led to another 2 free throws for Gallo and a 5 point lead in a 14-4 Nuggets run. Foye was aggressive with a block and a nice drive and the Nuggets came up with a Gallo block at the end of the quarter to take an 81-77 lead into the 4th.
Good defense opened the quarter for the Nuggets, but their offense was impeded by missed from Barton, Nurkic and Mudiay. Mudiay's strip and dunk took him to double-digit points and put the lead back to 4 and 84-80. Mike Miller nailed a three, his first bucket in 6 games, then for good measure hit another three on a nifty Mudiay assist. Foye blocked his second shot of the night, showing hustle and determination all game. Barton finally made a drive to push the lead to 10 and it looked brielfly like the Nuggets might coast to victory. Alas, not these Nuggets. Nurkic changed a lot of shots for most of the quarter but was replaced by Arthur with just under 4 minutes to go and the lead steady at 10. Without Nurkic though the Nuggets had trouble defending the paint and getting defensive rebounds, and their offense devolved into long shots only at the end of the shotclock. Charlotte's 3 with 45 seconds to go cut the lead to 3. The Nuggets then blew another play out of the timeout and gave the last shot to Charlotte. Gallinari nearly had the steal, the Hornets got two ugly three-point attempts that they missed before the buzzer finally gave Denver a reprieve. The Nuggets didn't score in the last 4+ minutes but managed to pull the win out at home for their sixth home court victory of the season at 95-92.
The pieces are there for a really good team. Nurkic played another game where he looks like a man among boys for his limited minutes on the court. He can get wherever he wants to on the court and take both rebounds and position away from whomever he wants. Spencer Hawes is not a little man, but Nurkic made the 7'1 center eat that man bun on more than one occasion. Nurkic often shoots too early. As I said in the game thread, if he would be more patient and gather himself instead of treating rebounds like he's in a handball tournament it would be a lot more effective. He's squanders his position too often by rushing shots, but that's just a growth issue not a limitation of his overall game. The same holds for Jokic. His court vision is terrific, as evinced by 9 assists in just 23 minutes, but he needs to be more aggressive with his shot. His interior hook shot is basically impossible to block once he has position. Mudiay had some unfortunate turnovers, as is his wont, but did some very good things in directing the flow of the offense as well. He also played some nice defense and had some drives that he will learn to finish as he gets some more years in this league. Harris was aggressive on offense and a terror on defense in the first half. The young players showed both their lack of experience and their future promise in this one.
The Nuggets ran aground again on offense. They couldn't get away from that stagnant offensive issue that has plagued them in recent quarters. Even Gallo said after the game, "We didn't execute on offense, we had bad shots." He threw up a left-handed 3 with the shot clock expiring in the last minute of the game, and that was just one shot among many that were poorly thought-out. Denver runs into trouble whenever they start thinking about the game. If another team changes their defense, the Nuggets get lost. If they start thinking about maximizing possession time instead of scoring, the chances for scoring decrease almost to zero. These Nuggets are a young, instinctual bunch, and they play better merely reacting to situations rather than thinking about them. That may make it hard for coach Michael Malone to get exactly what he wants every time down the court, but the sooner he lets them create for themselves the better off they'll be. I look forward to the team taking it upon themselves to move the ball and create their own opportunities even in late-game situations. Charlotte hit only 11 shots after halftime, though, and the Nuggets still could not pull away. Part of that may have been Mudiay getting tired, or simply so many pieces trying to fit together without enough court time, but Malone's understanding of his own team has been delayed by all these injuries as much as team chemistry has been. It just needs more time.
Will Barton's January struggles remain. He was 3 of 11 in 30 minutes. The Nuggets have rarely won when either he or Gallo has a bad game, so picking this one up was nice - but Barton is going to have to find his shooting stroke again and stop making poor decisions with the basketball in the lane and on fastbreaks, or the Nuggets will have trouble overcoming it. Randy Foye was aggressive and attacking on both ends tonight, and a difference maker when the Nuggets needed him. For an evening, he channeled Barton. Barton needs to channel Barton the rest of this homestand.