There wasn’t any defense to be found in this game, but the Denver Nuggets packed enough offense to snag the win on a the second night of a back-to-back, outlasting the Los Angeles Lakers 127-121. Will Barton reportedly had a fever of 105 yesterday but still played 20+ minutes of good basketball against Orlando. His play was on fire in this game: 26 points and a career-high 8 assists while hitting all 5 threes and driving some key plays down the stretch. Nikola Jokic had another tremendous performance, putting up 29 points and 15 rebounds, but really all the starters had good games.
Emmanuel Mudiay was focused on winning his matchup with D’Angelo Russell and did, while Faried had another strong game in the starting lineup. The bench performance was on life-support for 3+ quarters (Wilson Chandler redeemed it late) but the expected energy crash from starters who had to play 30+ on consecutive nights never developed. They only played offense in this game, but they played it for all 48 and in the end that was enough to secure the victory.
To start the game, Jokic missed his first shot in the paint, which seemed almost inconceivable, but Mudiay made a three, Faried fought for a bucket near the basket and Gallinari swished a three after a pretty pass from Faried to take a quick 8-4 lead. The Lakers made the decision early to defend Jokic with Julius Randle rather than Mozgov. Mudiay turned it over in traffic and the Nuggets gave up a dunk, but nothing seemed to slow Denver's offense down. Jokic hit a rainbow, and then Faried did this:
Look how even the threat of the handoff opens up the drive and dunk for Manimal pic.twitter.com/kTXWgsoDuC— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 18, 2017
The Nuggets went on an 13-2 run to go up 23-14. The Lakers got a sucker foul on Wil Barton but the Nuggets hit a trifecta of threes to take the lead up to 34-21. Gallinari dwarfed rookie Brandon Ingram in both size and strength and destroyed him on the way to the rim for a dunk as Denver and then had a tremendous give-and-go on an out of bounds play as took a 14 point lead out of the first, 40-26.
Denver rode its starters hard in the first but pulled the full bench to start the second with Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez bricking threes to open, followed by a Nurkic turnover. The Lakers opened with a 7-0 run. Nurkic backed Zubac to the basket and rattled in a shot to end that. Jameer Nelson went down hard while committing a charge but stayed in the game, though it didn't help the bench's rhythm. They went 2-for-6 shooting and had 4 turnovers in 4+ minutes. A Clarkson three cut the lead to four, 44-40 with 7 minutes to go.
Several of the starters came back and Chandler immediately converted a 3-point play against Ingram. The rest of the starters came back with 5:30 to go and the lead still at 4, and Barton flushed the next 6 points and pumped the lead up to 54-44. The refs let it get physical and Denver were slow to adjust on the glass. Jokic suckered three free throws, Faried got the lucky roll, and Mudiay had a steal and another give and go on the out of bounds play put Denver up 66-54 at the break.
The Nuggets opened the 2nd half with a pair of turnovers that the Lakers turned into four points, and Jokic earned two fouls in the first minute. Gallo and Faried got some inside buckets and Barton and Jokic hit threes to make it 78-63. The starters regained control of the game as a very motivated Mudiay put in a bucket while getting fouled and Jokic cleaned up the missed free throw with a dunk.
Once again the Lakers started their physical game and Tarik Black scored 6 for L.A. to cut it to 12 at 86-74. Barton would have none of it, firing in another three-pointer, and Jokic hit buckets from inside and out to push it back to 17 by the end of the quarter, 101-84.
Jokic was out to start the 4th but started Faried at center instead of Nurkic - and Faried was reported with lower back issues to begin the quarter. Murray committed a turnover, blew a layup and was way off on a contested 3. Multiple turnovers from all sides and physical play led to a 10-2 run for the Lakers before Chandler decided to take matters into his own hands:
Wilson Chandler attempts to end Zubac with this slam pic.twitter.com/EzVqQIH9s3— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 18, 2017
The Lakers wouldn't be denied, however, and cut it to 11 at 107-98 before Murray finally hit a 3. Gallinari shoved Ingram off after getting fouled and drew a technical, but Denver brought its starters back to close the deal. Denver and L.A. exchanged shots. Jokic and Zubac traded buckets but the Lakers cut it to 5 at 116-111 on a Nick Young three. Lou Williams hit another terrible shot to cut it to 2, and no Nugget could match the one-on-one game from the Lakers.
The refs made a terrible call on replay that cost Denver 3 points by giving the Lakers a second chance, but Denver wouldn’t let the win slip through its grasp this time. Nikola Jokic snagged two assists and Denver kept moving and attacking the rim, and Denver went up 5 with 29.3 to go. Wilson made a pair of clutch free throws, Nick Young stepped out of bounds on his final shot attempt, and Denver beat the Lakers again in L.A. 127-121.
1) Faried's play. We talked about Barton in the opening paragraph, so let’s mention instead how Faried has been playing out of his mind recently. He got the nifty passes and points in the last game, and opened up this game strong as well, scoring 14 in the first half while drawing charges, stealing basketballs and even playing some decent defense on occasion. The rebounds came in the second half and he played through lower back issues to finish the game strong. Of all the guys who are playing inspired ball right now, Faried has to be at the top of the list.
2) Nikola Jokic is human, but he’s still amazing. He had a little trouble locating his man because he was being defended by Randle early and lost track of Mozgov on the other end in transition, and he only netted one assist thanks to some dubious work at the scorer’s table. I mention those things because they’re about all he did wrong tonight. Putting up 29 and 15 the night after getting 30 / 11 / 5 is just crazy.
It’s not just the stat line though. After Jokic did not get a foul call at the basket he got angry and threw a baseball pass from out of bounds to Barton, who hit a 3. Denver feeds off him out there, passing better and simply playing better when he’s on the court. He had "just" 6 points and 4 rebounds after one quarter - but Denver was up by double figures. He ended the first half with no assists but had 3 blocks and was the pivot man on some nice give-and-go inbounding plays as well. The offense is a well-oiled machine whether or not he’s taking over, but posting back-to-back games where he does take over is a bonus - and a statement.
3) The bench woes continue. The bench only scored 10 of the 66 points in the first half. Murray was left in with the starters briefly but was pulled after a silly turnover (he had three for the night and they were all bad). That didn't improve in the second half as they finished with just 24 while turning the ball over 9 times, and as the rested part of the team they contributed almost nothing to either win in the last 2 days. Part of that is due to Barton and Nelson being recruited to the starting lineup in those games thanks to Harris’s injury, but other guys have to step up.
Denver's starting unit is one of the greatest scoring units in basketball right now, but if they don't get some consistent bench play all those big leads they pile up will be frittered away. Fixing the defense is important, but the bench has to find a way to gut it out too. Gallinari can’t play 40 minutes a night to bail that squad out.