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Recap: Nuggets rely on defense to stuff the Kings, 96-79

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You come at the king, you best not miss. The Kings missed - a lot.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets had trouble scoring from the field and were poor from the line for most of the game, but still ran away with their home opener against the Sacramento Kings. They carried the victory on the back of strong rebounding and defense. One of those things was a Nuggets hallmark last year and one definitely wasn’t, but both were good to see even against the tired Kings, who were on the second half of a back-to-back. Nikola Jokic had another bizarre statline, going scoreless on just three shots with 9 rebounds and 7 assists, but that was the most troubling aspect of the victory. Paul Millsap had another quietly good stat line with 18 points and 9 assists, and Gary Harris poured in 17. Kenneth Faried set the tone, though, with his 18 points and 8 rebounds at key points. It was definitely a strange game, though, especially for this Nuggets squad.

The Nuggets badly bricked their first three shots with some home-opener jitters, all on one possession, but the alley oop from Jokic to Harris on the next possession fixed that problem. Jokic had a good hedge on defense to help cause a turnover, and Wilson Chandler had a nice drive to the rack. Millsap and Zach Randolph banged inside early, Sacramento missed some shots, and it was 9-3 Denver at the first TV timeout.

Millsap had a couple of nice finishes in the paint before Plumlee came in for Jokic and Barton for Chandler. Sacramento then scored a couple of times (D'Aaron Fox had a nice drive to the rim) but then Barton showed him how it's done.

The Nuggets were the aggressors early, hitting the glass while drawing the fouls and getting to the line (though they were only 3-for-7 in the quarter). Malone switched Jokic back in for Millsap (obviously an intentional effort to keep one on the court at all times) but some silly turnovers let the Kings crawl back in and take the lead at 18-17 to end another lackluster session against another team's bench unit for the Nuggets. Denver scored two points over the final 4:36.

Faried hit an off-balance one-hander to start the second and Barton swished Denver's first three (after 9 attempts), part of an 11-0 run to quickly retake the lead. Mudiay ran the point more effectively and he whole team played with more energy to start the second, keyed by the Manimal. Faried scored a quick and energetic 8 points from multiple spots on the floor and had a couple of blocks, including this spectacular chasedown, to help pump Denver's lead to 33-23.

The questionable part of the first half was Nikola Jokic, who scored zero points on just two shots, with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 fouls. Millsap hit a 3 in the final minute of the half but Denver's disjointedness down the stretch was matched only by Sacramento's brick-laying ability. Denver led 42-34 at halftime, the fewest points allowed at halftime by the Nuggets since 2014.

The halftime show with all the Denver legends was a great drop of history. Byron Beck, Alex English, Doug Moe, David Thompson, Dan Issel and Dikembe Mutombo all came out to music, clips and applause. Dan Issel talked about each man and their place in Denver history. "I was blessed to play for 4 coaches who are in the Hall of Fame," Issel said, "but Doug Moe is the best coach I ever played for." He thanked Tim Connelly for putting it together but put in a special thanks for Lisa Johnson, Denver's Vice President of Administration. It was a short and fun look back at what Denver has been.

The Nuggets started off the third quarter with the kind of passing that made them the top offense for much of last year. It included some over-passing, but Millsap got a dunk on the first play and a three on the second. Then that went away as Jamal Murray ran the point. Denver's pick-and-roll defense stayed strong, though.

Jokic's reluctance to take a shot continued but the Nuggets were running on turnovers, fast-breaking to a 53-40 lead before some bench substitutions happened. Will Barton gunned some threes and all the spots were driving the lane as both Murray and Plumlee put up shots at the rim. Mudiay hit a pair of free throws at the end of the third and Denver closed up 66-52.

The Nuggets pushed that lead to 21 in the first few minutes of the 4th quarter as the Kings got tired and the Nuggets threw passes from all angles. Like these angles, for instance:

The Kings then had two 3-point plays in a row, but Chandler had an answer 3. The benches started to make their appearances, and a somewhat-gassed Sacramento squad couldn’t make a push. Denver closed out a 96-79 home victory and sent everyone home happy, whether they were fans or hall of famers.

Well, maybe not Jokic, but perhaps some post-game audio can help clear that up.

Three Takeaways

  • Rebounding and defense showed up. The Nuggets were out-rebounded against Utah and for most of the preseason, but the team rediscovered its strength from last year and kept the Kings from second chance points. Denver out-rebounded Sacramento 58-38 and held the Kings to just 37% from the field. Chandler particularly had trouble shooting but was a force on the glass with 12 boards in 26 minutes. No matter what Denver’s plans are for offense and defense, good rebounding helps them with both. Faried especially brought the energy the Nuggets needed for rebounding and honestly scoring, but if rebounding and defense are hustle stats then the hustle really picked up when the Manimal took to the court. It was good to see.
  • Jokic refusing to shoot is an issue. At one point Chris Marlowe called it Nene-itis, and it's a troubling trend two games into the season. The Nuggets are not working to set up plays for him at the top of the key like they did last year (and need to work their DHO game which is all but forgotten for long stretches) but he's also flat-out refusing to shoot shots that he absolutely took last year. Jokic shooting forces rotations to respect his scoring as well as his passing and opens up lanes for everyone. I don't know why he's not letting it fly, but it can't continue. It simply can't.
  • One of the point guards needs to stay hot in these early games. Jamal Murray has been willing to shoot but hasn't been great at getting it in the bucket. Neither Murray nor Mudiay have been great in the assist department, but Mudiay finished several drives tonight and rebounded well. Tonight was Mudiay’s night, at least in the second half, as he finished with 10 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. Both gave good defensive effort, but with Jokic having the yips (or whatever is happening with his scoring game) the point guards will have to be able to do all the little things, and that includes scoring.