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Recap: Nuggets get stung by Charlotte, lose 112-102

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Denver did some sleepwalking at the end of the first and never recovered as Charlotte looked like the rested team.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets could not overcome some complacent play and a lack of energy from several players, losing 112-102 to a Charlotte team that finally put together four quarters of play against Denver’s invisible defense. Nikola Jokic had a strong game with 31 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists, backed up by good efforts from Danilo Gallinari (22 points) and Jamal Murray (14 points and 3 assists), but the rest of the Nuggets were a no-show with no one else in double-figures. Charlotte played much like Denver is supposed to, passing and rebounding well while hitting their open shots (and some not-so-open).

Their guard play was much superior to Denver’s, however, with Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum combining for 48 points and plenty of dagger threes whenever Denver tried to put a run together. The Nuggets could not get traction with their vaunted offense, and on defense gave up too many points off turnovers (19) while letting Charlotte shoot 16-for-27 from deep. Some days the ball doesn’t bounce your way, but Denver was a step slow and had too many players who couldn’t find the groove tonight.

Jokic started the game with a turnover but made up for it with a nice turnaround hook the next time down. Gallinari got himself to the line early. Cody Zeller hit a couple of easy buckets on Jokic, but Jokic and Gallo worked a two-man game very well. Gallo and Kemba Walker exchanged threes (Danilo's was the 500th of his Denver career) and Jameer Nelson darted to the hoop for an easy layup and and a 13-9 Denver lead. Kemba Walker made a pair of free throws but then Gallinari did this and Denver was working it early.

Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum then both hit tough shots and both Gallo and Chandler had trouble drawing calls, which allowed Charlotte to retake the lead at 21-19 with a 10-2 run as the bench started filtering in. The run got up to 20-2 as Charlotte hit everything from any distance. It finally stopped when Jamal Murray finished at the rim then got a steal for a Barton fastbreak. The bench found its energy in the final minute, wrapping with a Barton block at the buzzer, but Denver still trailed 31-23 after one.

Murray opened with a long buzzer 3 that was countered by a Roberts three as Gallinari came back out to start the quarter and help the offense. Murray hit another 3 to trigger a timeout and had 10 points in the first half. Denver had trouble controlling the defensive boards but Gallinari's aggressiveness in getting to the basket and getting to the foul line helped settle the unit. The defensive effort picked up a little but Denver could not close the gap with the bench. The Nuggets looked sloppy and slow and were down 49-37 halfway through the quarter. Charlotte making 7 of its first 10 three-point attempts didn't help. Gallo finally made a jumper after 5 misses, and Jokic went inside to cut it to 7.

The Nuggets couldn't buy non-Gallo foul calls though, stood around on offense, and Jokic's strip turnover turned into a layup. His late-clock jumper cleaned up Denver's last possession and made it a 9 point lead for Charlotte at the half, 61-52.

Noted Nugget-killer Batum came out with a bucket to start the second half while Charlotte fronted Jokic hard, then dunked in his face. Batum was wide open and hit another three off a Denver turnover, giving up a 7-0 run to start the quarter. Another turnover led to another Charlotte three. Jokic had a couple of buckets but 4 early Denver turnovers and Charlotte threes kept the lead at 20 halfway through the quarter.

Jokic and Gallinari worked inside for some trips to the stripe and Jameer finally hit another three, followed by a Gallo three to close to 11 at 80-69 to cap an 11-2 run. Jokic's pair of layups were offset by a nice Walker three, but Jokic got a foul call on a missed three to keep it close. Arthur's dunk cut it to single digits in the final minute but Jeremy Lamb's prayer of a three made it 90-79 with one quarter to go.

Johnny O'Bryant hit a three (making Charlotte a ridiculous 14-of-21 from deep to that point compared to Denver's 7-for-23) but Plumlee fought through contact for a layup counter. Bricks and more turnovers kept the bench from making a run despite some nice play from Murray.

Nobody could stop Charlotte from doing what they wanted, with even Johnny O'Bryant getting 15 points and 6 boards in limited time. Juancho's three brought it back to 11 despite Chandler's missed jumpers (1-for-8 on the night), and a Barton three and Murray's transition drive cut it to 6 with 5 minutes to go. Barton, who had been invisible if not bad for most of the night, cut it to 4. Walker's signature leaning three and a tough Williams floater got Charlotte some breathing room. Four straight misses from Denver let the game slip away, though, as Charlotte put on a 9-0 run and left Denver without the closing run it needed.

Thoughts:

Denver has too many good players to have such consistently poor secondary-piece play. Jameer Nelson started again and the cutting wasn’t nearly as good as the Milwaukee game while playing a bit of a passive, slow-it-down style that didn’t help Denver get its offense stretched out. Murray found his scoring touch but the bench outside of him didn’t do much. Gary Harris pulled another one of his disappearing acts that I had hoped he was past, putting up one shot and going scoreless in 22 minutes. Neither he nor Chandler had it tonight, but no one on the bench was able to step up behind them.

This feels like what happens when Nelson and Barton facilitate the offense instead of letting it run through players who are willing to move and dish. Barton had a terrible game until the end of the fourth, and he tends to struggle when the offense isn’t working to his scoring advantage. The whole effort from the Nuggets was disjointed, which was a shame: there were some really good mismatches out there that Denver simply could not exploit. The offense played passively and that same passivity stretched to the defensive glass, which allowed Denver to get destroyed by 20 second-chance points from a poor offensive-rebounding team in Charlotte that was missing two big men.

I don’t know why Denver’s wings don’t box out on D, or cut on O. The flow was there in the game early and Denver’s wings were moving, especially Gallinari. Once the bench came in much of that aggressive attack stopped and it took nearly the whole game to get it back. Maybe that’s still the unfamiliarity with Plumlee, or moving Jameer Nelson to the starting lineup and leaving the bench without a true point guard (since Emmanuel Mudiay is in time-out, apparently). Whatever it is, Denver ground to a halt again with the backups and could not start the engine again.

Regardless of the playoffs, the Nuggets have to find out how to keep their bench engine running and their secondary players contributing. As Scott Hastings and Chris Marlowe said at the end of the game, the successful version of the Nuggets plays like they did in the Milwaukee game: hustling on both ends, sharing the ball, and making the game easier through cooperative effort. This was the opposite of that, and Denver can’t be great with just three players bringing it on any evening. They’re not built that way.

Better luck against the Kings on Monday; Michael Malone needs to finally get a win against his old team, and the Nuggets have to make up for this loss to keep their playoff breathing room.