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Recap: Nuggets defeat the TrailBlazers 132-120

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Damian Lillard got his points, but the Nuggets got the last laugh

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Portland had beaten the Nuggets 13 of the last 14, but the Denver Nuggets finally turned the tables and got some revenge for their home-opening defeat, downing the TrailBlazers 132-120 in a high-scoring affair. Damian Lillard came to play, putting up 40 points, but Denver responded with a balanced attack and hard early blows from it’s remade starting lineup. 7 Nuggets scored in double figures led by Danilo Gallinari’s 27 and Denver controlled the action from the tip, leading to one of the better victories on the year for Mile High basketball.

Right out of the gate Malone shook up the starting lineup, taking advantage of the return of Gary Harris to try something completely different (and sort of amazing). Mudiay, Harris, Gallinari, Chandler and Jokic took the floor together to start the game, a lineup that had only played 9 minutes together all season.

Gallinari started off the scoring for Denver with a 16-footer followed by a Harris-assisted three, and the Nuggets took care of the rebounds early. Harris made his own three to mark his first shot back, and Harkless and Chandler traded threes to make it 10-7 Denver early. Denver rained threes in the early going with Gallo and Mudiay each hitting another amongst some much better ball movement but the interior D was poor, keeping Portland in it. Quick substitutions brought Faried in for Chandler and Murray for the minutes-restricted Harris, and then there was this pass:

The Nuggets were up 25-15 with over 5 minutes to go in the quarter led by Gallo's 11. Faried rebounded everything and Murray and Jokic poured in back-to-back buckets. The bench came in with no traditional big and played a little more one-on-one but blew a couple of fast breaks. They started to find their rhythm at the end of the quarter however with Murray and Chandler attacking and Denver finished the quarter up 38-28.

Nurkic came off the bench to start the second quarter, but both teams were cold from the field. Barton's four made free throws were the only scoring over the first three minutes until Barton's swished three put Denver up 45-28. Chandler's three put Denver up 20 but some sloppy play from both teams marred the middle of the quarter. Gary Harris's three and Mudiay's pair of free throws extended the lead back to 20 at 57-37 as the Nuggets answered every brief run from Portland with one of their own. Then Jokic pulled out a three of his own and everything he touched turned to gold. The starting lineup suits him.

Mudiay and Gallinari hit a couple of shots, and even some mistakes caused by Portland's trapping defense and Portland pushing the ball inside couldn't whittle down Denver's lead. Jokic had back-to-back assists from near the three point line that were just unbelievable, but took a silly third foul with a minute to go. Portland managed to cut the lead down from its high of 23 thanks to some good play from Lillard, finishing on a 12-7 run, but Denver still took a 74-56 halftime lead on a tough Gallo baseline jumper. Gallo finished the half with 20 points in just 15 minutes and Denver had four in double figures.

Gary Harris started the second half with a bang, taking a Jokic alley oop for a dunk and showing his foot is fine. The Nuggets gave up a bunch of interior penetration in the first few minutes, and when Jokic picked up his fourth foul, Faried returned 3 minutes into the quarter. Mudiay got a nice assist to Chandler but the two teams just traded buckets for the next few minutes without Jokic.

Harris showed some strong defense and then hit a dribble-drive to take it back to 91-72. Portland's trapping and double-teams aggravated Denver but not enough to make a difference in the score until the end of the quarter. Denver started settling for threes but Murray's free throws let the home team take a 100-85 lead into the fourth, despite his foul on a three-point shooting Crabbe at the end of the quarter.

Denver started off the fourth quarter sloppy as well, taking poor shots and allowing a pair of made buckets to take the score to 11. Gallo came back to help solidify the lineup and both he and Jameer hit shots, but the offense stayed perimeter while the TrailBlazers attacked inside repeatedly. Jokic came back with just under 10 minutes to go but earned his 5th foul and had to go out again. Malone played Faried rather than Nurkic and Portland kept up their assault on the paint. Portland couldn't cut the lead to single digits though and a Harris-forced turnover led to a Gallinari three and raised the lead back to 116-100 with just under 6 minutes to go.

Lillard tried to will his team back with his 35 points but even without a huge paint presence Denver wouldn't give up the lead. Gallinari and Harris bedeviled the TrailBlazers and Faried's energy and rebounding helped seal the deal. Jameer hit a couple of pull-up jumpers and assisted Harris with a dagger three with a minute and a half left. The game wound down with trips to the foul line from there but Denver coasted comfortably to the finish, 132-120.

Three thoughts:

Gallinari works just fine with the Jokic / Mudiay / Harris lineup. He had a season-high 27 points, 20 of which came in the first half, and was both moving and driving the lane much better than in previous games. He helped stabilize the bench players as well in the fourth quarter, and might be the connective tissue that can help tie the two units together. Maybe his leg was feeling better, maybe the wind resistance was lessened without that scraggle-faced thing he calls a beard. Regardless, the Gallinari that has been Denver’s best player since he got here made a reappearance tonight. Hopefully that version sticks around.

Malone vs. the Rotation: Victory by KO, Michael Malone. Way to get off the mat, coach. After weeks of watching the Nuggets stagger around looking like 2 am booze hounds on a three week bender, Malone was not afraid to re-insert his injured player (Harris) directly into the starting lineup and to start a group that only had 9 minutes together all season. Portland is not a defensive juggernaut by any means, but Denver took advantage of the increased space that came from having a center who could pass from the top of the key to cut up Portland inside and out. Denver had 22 assists and 10 points through 3 quarters and scored 100 points in those 36 minutes, 72 by the starters.

The bench didn't look nearly as comfortable as the starters, but that should come with familiarity. I did find it interesting that Malone limited Mudiay mostly to minutes with Jokic. When Jokic had to leave the court, Malone kept Mudiay out as well - he only had 22 minutes on the evening and Jameer Nelson played the entire fourth quarter. It paid off with some key plays down the stretch despite Jameer’s weariness. I don’t like that the coach still can’t get his players some rest, but at least this time there seemed to be more strategy to it than just forgetfulness. More of that, Malone. Denver has to keep putting its best players on the floor together to turn this season around, and if you’re actively thinking about player pairings then at least there’s some method to the madness for once.

Jokic is life, but Harris is glue. Jokic picked up too many fouls, and long-term Denver probably needs a long shot-blocker and defender next to him which neither Chandler nor Faried are. Nevertheless, the things he does on the court are just magic. He has incredible touch inside of 12 feet and can shoot a three or grab an assist from equal distance. The amount of spacing created by running more of the offense through him was tremendous, and the wings garnered a lot more assists as well. He only played 19 minutes, but the Nuggets were +15 in those minutes. They won by 12 which means Portland outscored Denver without Nikola on the court. He must avoid silly fouls and keep himself on the floor in order for Denver to be its best self.

Gary Harris, on the other hand, blew past Malone’s self-imposed minutes restriction (of course), getting 32 minutes on a night he was supposed to top out at 24. The Nuggets just play differently with him on the court. They remember to cut and the energy level of the players goes way up. I can’t help looking forward to seeing Harris and Mudiay together the rest of the year, with Jokic helping to direct traffic and Denver’s wings and mobile big men attacking and popping all over the place. That a good spot to be in.

Welcome back Gary!