The Denver Nuggets had three players in double figures and withstood a late three-point barrage from the Philadelphia 76ers to take the second game of their six game road trip, 106-98. Danilo Gallinari poured in 24 points, many of them from the charity stripe, and Jamal Murray and Will Barton followed with 22 apiece. Jusuf Nurkic had 8 points and 10 boards but more importantly harasses 76ers giant Joel Embiid and the rest of the Philadelphia squad in the paint all night and was a presence on both ends of the court. All in all it was a nice turnaround for a squad that desperately needed a win and earned it on the road.
Joel Embiid was covered by Kenneth Faried to start the game and the seven-footer immediately drew a foul on Faried, then altered Mudiay's shot on the next possession. Both teams struggled to sink buckets for the next couple of minutes. The Nuggets turned it over on 5 consecutive possessions in a variety of different ways, and a three from Sergio Rodriguez put Philly up 10-4. Chandler and Nurkic had a nice lob play with six minutes to go in the first and Gallinari's block of Dario Saric was a highlight, but it was his three that took the deficit to 4, 15-11. Gallinari and Nurkic started leaning on the paint when Embiid went out, doing things like this:
But unfortunately missed shots and free throws kept Denver in the deficit. Denver turned it over 9 times in the first quarter (Mudiay had only one - it was a team effort) and even a step-back rainbow three from Jamal Murray couldn't cut the lead much. After one the Nuggets trailed 27-18.
The second round of Nurkic vs. Embiid was entertaining to start the second quarter, involving fouls, blocks, physical play and even a scramble on the floor involving both seven-footers. Denver ran a nice in-bounds to Murray that cut the lead to 32-26, but the Nuggets and Sixers just traded buckets for a few minutes. A blown layup by Mudiay and a Chandler turnover left Denver down 50-40 with three minutes to go in the half. But then the offense surfaced. Jameer Nelson hit a pull-up, Gallo hit a three and frees, and Murray and Saric traded threes for an 11-3 Denver run that closed the Nuggets to trailing just by 2, 53-51 at halftime. Murray’s 17 points in the half were crucial, capped by this nice shot:
The third quarter started off with a nice Mudiay pass to Faried - who was immediately stuffed by Embiid, his fourth block of the game to that point. That kid might eventually be something. Other than an early Gallo three, The Nuggets couldn't hit anything out of the half once again. More turnovers and even an airball from Barton left the offense stagnant, but by forcing Embiid into a series of mistakes and playing some aggressive defense the Nuggets managed to tie it up at 58 on a steal that led to a Barton finish. Nurkic played some aggressive, inspired ball, getting on the hardwood again for a loose ball. Finally with 4 minutes to go, Gallinari's free throws gave Denver their first lead of the game at 64-63. And then Jamal did this:
It was bucket-for-bucket down the stretch, with Gallo doing even more damage from the foul line (11-for-12 through 3) via his relentless drives, but the Nuggets were only able to get the lead to 4 by the end of the period, 74-70.
Murray hit another three to begin the fourth quarter to get up to 20+ points on the night, and Barton finishing in the paint with authority after a slow start pushed the lead to double digits at 81-70. Chandler finally hit his first bucket of the night and then strung together 10 straight points to pace Denver. Sergio Rodriguez kept bombing away from three though, cutting Denver's lead to 91-84 with 4:30 to go. A Stauskas 3 forced Malone to take a timeout, after which Gallinari made a bucket and Darrell Arthur hit a three, but Ilyasova fired right back to cut it to 5. A turnover bucket from Jameer Nelson looked like it might be the end, but Embiid hit a 3 to make it a 4 point game, 100-96. With under a minute to go, though, Barton buried a 3 to salt the game away.
Three things I saw:
Defense. After giving up the most points in the league during their last several games, the Nuggets finally committed to defending and harassing a team for three and a half quarters, forcing turnovers and frustrating drives even when the offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders. They struggled to put away the Sixers over the final six minutes, when Philly simply bombed everything from three to take their chance as a puncher, but the defense was active all night. Some of the switches onto Saric and Ilyasova really hurt Denver early, but what they gave up in mismatches they made up in energy and commitment to defensive rotations and frustrating Embiid in the paint. It was a nice improvement, even if not against the greatest team. Now if they can just clean up that fourth quarter execution...
Nurkic. It's not about the stat line, which was fine (8 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks in 23 minutes) but more about how hard he played. He ran the floor like a wing, talked some trash to Embiid and then backed it up, dove for multiple loose balls, defended both the rim and the paint, and generally looked like the Jusuf Nurkic we all want to see play center for Denver. Nurkic playing at full speed - but also under control, as he kept himself to 2 turnovers - is incredibly valuable, and the kind of handful that even a 7'2 future-all-star in Embiid couldn't limit.
Murray getting a seat at the big-boy table while Mudiay frozen out.
The Nuggets veterans look like they enjoy playing with Jamal more than Emmanuel— Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan) December 6, 2016
Unless it was for an immediate pick-and-roll, Mudiay had trouble getting the ball back from his teammates. On the other end of the spectrum, Barton passed up a wide-open three for maybe the first time in his career to toss the ball sideways to Jameer who was even a little more open. Murray missed, but that's not the point. The veterans already trust him to put that shot up - Jameer threw him a behind-the-back pass for a corner three that he nailed just a couple of minutes later.
Mudiay does not have that same trust, and for good reason if you look at his shooting percentages. He only had 21 minutes with a measly 4 points, 1 rebound and for the second game he had zero assists (against 3 turnovers this time). Those are untenable numbers for a point guard, and he looks to be having trouble fitting into the offense or with his teammates. Malone is essentially playing him as a bench unit PG until he figures this out, but if he doesn't have the trust of his teammates that will make it hard to climb out of the slump. He’ll have the rest of the road trip to try to figure out the answer, but right now it’s clear his leash is shorter even if he’s still starting.