The Denver Nuggets played hard in their first game back after the All-Star break, but playing hard and playing well are different measures entirely. A sloppy, turnover-filled effort left the Nuggets with a bad taste in their mouths and a poor loss as well as they fell to the Sacramento Kings 116-110.
No one and nothing could stop DeMarcus Cousins, especially with the way fouls were called for most of the game. Cousins dominated Denver with 37 points and 20 rebounds, while Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic only played a combined 18 minutes but racked up 9 fouls defending him. The stars from Sacramento had a good offensive night, as Rajon Rondo had 24 points and was one assist away from a triple-double, while Rudy Gay poured in 24 of his own. Danilo Gallinari dropped 27 points on just 11 shots and Joffrey Lauvergne had a career-high 22, but there were too many lapses to overcome in the end.
The game started on a poor note with Nikola Jokic getting called for two fouls in the first two minutes. The Kings were 4-of-4 on threes early, and the foul calls kept getting stranger. Gay pushed off but Gallo got called for the foul, and Gay hit both foul shots for a 15-11 Kings lead. Both teams were incredibly sloppy for the game with 40 combined turnovers, and early ones hurt Denver's attempts to get in the flow, as did the choppy pace of play due to the fouls. Nurkic got more early minutes than usual and stripped Cousins then Gay on back to back turnovers with his quick hands. A Gallinari three made it 20-16. and then Rondo shoved Nurkic and the Sacramento guard got a technical that slowed the game down further. Cousins and Gallinari both had 12 points for the quarter, but the Nuggets failed to rebound at the end of the period and it led to a 3 at the buzzer and a 31-24 Kings lead after one.
Rondo opened the second with a 3, and then a strip for a dunk made it 36-24 Kings inside the first minute. The Nuggets kept hustling though, as they would all night, with Augustin passing to Darrell Arthur for his first Nuggets assist. Unfortunately that was about the only thing Arthur would do all night. Harris nailed a 3 after a missed free throw by Lauvergne and then Augustin found Lauvergne for a dunk after another strip to cut the lead to 38-34. His drives opened up basket opportunities for everyone, but Gay hit back to back threes to get back to 48-40 as the Nuggets turnover woes kept them from being able to make a serious run. Collison put up 17 points in the game for the Kings and ravaged Denver with easy interior points to get the lead back to 10. The memo continued to be laid down by the referees: do not breathe on Cousins. A terrible blocking foul call got Malone a tech in defense of his team that couldn't buy a call until that point. Sacramento played more straight up defense than their normal switching and threw in a little full-court defense and active guard play. Neither team played a ton of defense but the Kings had just a bit more. Faried got left on Cousins for several points and was abused, but since Cousins was called for his first foul with just over 1 minute left in the half that made life tough for Denver. Cousins blocked a Faried dunk at the end of the half and Sacramento scored 39 in the quarter to go in at halftime up 70-57.
The second half started as a mirror of the first, as Jokic played two minutes and picked up two more fouls. Cousins pulled on Jokic's arm and somehow earned a double foul on Jokic. Some nifty passing kept the Nuggets trading buckets with the Kings, and then Gallo pulled up with a three (giving him 24 points on just 9 shots at that juncture) to bring the game back to singled digits at 79-72. Mudiay's shooting was awful, for the game, hitting just 4 of 14 shots, but he kept trying to no good effect. Gay had a breakaway dunk off another Nuggets turnover, and DeMarcus got breathed on again to go back to the line. More Denver turnovers and fast break opportunities pushed the line back to 86-72 with Sacramento on a 7-0 run. The Nuggets kept turning Sac-Town over though and somehow wound up down 11, 88-77 after 3.
Augustin hit a 3 to start the 4th, but the Nuggets left their defense in Denver and never really found it. Collison hit a 3-point play and Lauvergne was called for an iffy offensive goaltend. He came back with a nice jumper and a strip and layup by Barton cut it back to 9. Barton hit a couple more shots, including a 3, but not being able to stop anyone made the climb tough as the Kings were in the bonus with over 7 minutes to go. Barton heated up in the fourth but was called for an offensive foul rather than giving Cousins his 5th, which could have changed the complexion of the game. Barton came right back down the court for a fast break bucket to make it 99-93. Just when the Nuggets were getting close a lazy pass from Augustin led to a free bucket for the Kings, but Lauvergne hit a three and the Nuggets were within 5 at 103-98. Then Denver missed three straight open shots with a chance to make it a one possession game and Rondo took over. His easy layup bounced it to 7 and a steal on Mudiay made it 9 with just under 2 minutes to go. The Nuggets kept playing all game, but Lauvergne's late dunk and Barton's free throws went for naught as the Nuggets couldn't get the needed stops and Sacramento refused to miss free throws down the stretch.
Sometimes playing hard just isn't enough.
Augustin was a bright spot. I wondered before the game about his ability to fit in without knowing his teammates or the offensive gameplan, but his generalship of the second unit was better than anything Randy Foye or injured Jameer Nelson had been able to manage. Augustin motored around the court, a jarring sight after watching Mudiay, Nelson and Foye all season. He looks like a good add for the stretch run, and should give us a nice long look at him as a possible replacement for Nelson beyond this year.
Not enough contributions on either end. Gallinari was terrific. Lauvergne couldn't stop Cousins but held up his end on offense. Barton came alive halfway through the fourth after a bad game to that point, and Harris had a surprising-yet-quiet 14 points and Augustin had a nice 8-and-6 bench line. That was it for Denver. The other five players - including 3 starters - scored 22 combined points, and no one could defend either the paint or the three-point line (the Kings had 56 points in the paint and shot 10-for-13 from three in the first half). The team played like they hadn't seen each other in two weeks. They weren't sluggish, just out of sorts and playing individual basketball. They even passed the ball and cleared their 25-assist mark that usually means a win, but Mudiay's penetration was completely absent and the backcourt of the Kings wreaked havoc alongside a dominant Cousins. The Nuggets will have to come up with a better gameplan when they see Sacramento again in a few days.
Career high from Lauvergne. It's been an up-and-down season for Joffrey, but he's shown he can be an offensive force when he gets extended minutes, and he did it again tonight. He started the season as the starter before his injury, and was the only member of our Euro frontcourt that didn't fall apart tonight. His defense is not great and may never be, but if there's a place for the Tristan Thompsons and Enes Kanters of the league, Joffrey can find his place too. He's a nice bench 4 to have, even if we play him as a 5 - perhaps too often. Hopefully he didn't hurt his wrist too badly on his last dunk, because we'll need him again soon.