Kobe Bryant, a verified Denver Nuggets killer, played his final game in Denver tonight, however a shoulder injury limited to just one quarter of action. Instead the stars of the night were the young back courts for each team. Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay, D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson all had big nights scoring. Yet in the end, it was a veteran addition to Denver that put them over the top.
The game opened well for the Nuggets with Kenneth Faried freeing Harris on a screen on the first possession of the game for an easy basket. The Lakers also got out of the gate quickly by running their offense through Russell for a quick five points. Not to be out done, Mudiay quickly responded with a pair of threes and Denver opened up a 15-3 scoring run on the back of 10 early points from their rookie point guard to grab the lead.
Julius Randle and Clarkson finally got things going for the Lakers in the middle of the first after a string of possessions that truly showed why the Lakers have one of the worst records in the league (airball, brick, airball, turnover etc). To help LA even more, Kobe got himself on the board with a long two and then baited Jakarr Sampson into fouling him on a three point shot. After the Nuggets apparently decided Clarkson didn't need to be guarded the Lakers opened up a 19-4 run of their own and captured the lead. The quarter ended with both teams swapping free throws and a 29-27 Lakers advantage.
The Nuggets really struggled early on from the free throw line and as the second quarter started that was still true with Will Barton missing two of three free throws. In fact, with both teams' benches checking in missed shots in general were the theme of the early second quarter. After a few minutes each reserve unit started heating up and when D.J. Augustin got to the foul line with around six minutes left in the half the Nuggets regained the lead 41-40.
Mudiay checked back in and immediately attacked the basket for a lay up only to have Russell respond with a three right in his eye. However, the Laker who was doing the most damage was Marcelo Huertas who, for whatever reason, was giving Augustin all kinds of fits on defense and had nine points in the second quarter. Once the starters checked back in they began to mimic the bench with a series of missed shots and virtually all the points that were scored came from the free throw line. Barton hit Faried on a nice break away alley-oop to break up the boredom but Russell continued to have a hot hand to keep the Lakers ahead 60-57 at the end of the first half.
In a bit of a downer, the second half opened with the news that Kobe was still struggling with a sore shoulder and was done for the night. Gary Harris opened the half with three straight buckets for Denver and they regained the lead. Mudiay and Nikola Jokic got back to the scoring ways they had in the first quarter and coach Michael Malone's half time adjustment to have Jakarr Sampson cover Russell paid off early. However, mental lapses on defense and then some cooled off shooting kept Denver from opening a big lead early in the quarter.
Sampson had a nice quarter on both sides of the ball and he scored five straight points to get the lead up to eight before Russell finally got loose for his first basket of the quarter, a wide open three. Luckily, Darrell Arthur responded right back with a three of his own. Defensively, and really all around, the Nuggets played very well for nine minutes of the third but allowed a 7-0 run by the Lakers to close the quarter and had their once eight point lead trimmed to one.
Clarkson joined Kobe on the out for the game list with a sore patellar tendon and the contest was set up for the Nuggets to earn the victory in the fourth quarter. However, their defense began to falter again and a variety of Lakers who would likely never get minutes on any other team not named the Philadelphia 76ers put LA ahead once again. Offensively the Nuggets weren't shooting very well (outside of Augustin) but offensive rebounds helped to mitigate that. Fortunately for Denver, the lack of talent on the Lakers side started to expose them and some sloppy turnovers keyed a 10-0 run to put Denver back ahead.
Augustin really won the fourth quarter, and by extension the game, for Denver by either assisting or scoring their first 15 points. He got red hot from three and when he wasn't able to score it himself he was doing a nice job of distributing. Perhaps concerned about losing minutes, Mudiay made sure to do his fair share of scoring in the fourth as well. As usual however, every time it looked like the Nuggets were going to push the lead to double figures they'd have a mental lapse on defense to keep from putting the Lakers away. A ridiculous and 1 by Augustin finally got the lead past ten points for the Nuggets and the writing was on the wall. Denver wins, 117-107.
Via An Nguyen of BSN Denver.
Key match up: Emmanuel Mudiay vs D'Angelo Russell
This one turned out to be excellent. Both players got off to a fast start and reached double figures before the end of the first half. Mudiay was getting to the basket pretty regularly but also connecting on some threes. Russell was doing what got him drafted 2nd overall: making shots with ease from all different parts of the floor. However at the end of the game it was Mudiay who started getting the better of the match up and he scored at will on Russell. Whether it was animosity or good natured competitiveness, you could tell the two rookies really wanted to get the better of the other and their battle tonight ended up being the best part of the game.
Mudiay vs Russell is starting to get very fun! Both guys chest bumping each other down the court!— Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares) March 3, 2016
Key thing to watch for: Minutes for the bigs
It was another DNP-CD for Jusuf Nurkic and Jokic got himself into some first half foul once again. However, there were no lineups that did not have either Jokic or Joffrey Lauvergne in them and thus the ultra small ball did not break out. We even saw a Jokic-Lauvergne pairing to close out the game. Overall the Nuggets got very solid production from their big men. Jokic had a typical stat line (14 points, 6 boards, five fouls) and Lauvergne was solid on the boards while also chipping in seven points. It was definitely a breath of fresh air to see the Nuggets use a more traditional line up and get both of their centers 25+ minutes, though I'm sure many would still prefer Nurkic to be the second center instead of Lauvergne
The Nuggets got it done tonight but they got bailed out by two big factors. One, the Lakers are bad and if you remove Kobe and Clarkson from the equation they barely pass for an NBA team. Second, Augustin had the performance of a lifetime in the fourth quarter which he likely will not repeat again. While the game was no contest by the end, it was far too close for my liking given that the Lakers were coming off a back to back and are one of the worst teams in the Association.
It's also disappointing that Kobe didn't play past the first quarter. In my perfect world Kobe has a big night scoring to keep the game close and then Mudiay buries a shot in his eye to win the game. Alas, it was not meant to be. I will always respect Kobe as a basketball player and for everything he did for this league...but I won't miss him destroying the Nuggets and I'm happy he's going home with a loss.
Box score via ESPN.com
Thanks for the memories