The Denver Nuggets came into Sunday night on a roller coaster, riding the high of opening the season with back to back wins but also dealing with the low of finding out Will Barton is going to miss time with a groin strain. Additionally, the Nuggets came into the game on the second night of a back to back whereas their opponent, the defending world champion Golden State Warriors, had a full day’s worth of rest.
In Barton’s place, Torrey Craig was elected to start but it was Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic who stole the show and the game for the Nuggets. In what was a game that would go down to the wire, Denver found just enough offense and one huge block to secure the 100-98 victory.
The game opened with a pair of tough possessions for Paul Millsap who got a questionable whistle on the defensive end before missing a wide open three on the offensive end. Denver kept up the defensive effort early on, limiting the Warriors early offense to just Klay Thompson and Damian Jones, but outside of a Craig three their offense was sputtering. Without their shots falling, the Nuggets made the correct adjustment and were aggressive to the basket which resulted in several trips to the free throw line.
Denver’s offense had all the looks of a team on a back to back. They spent far too many possessions settling for jumpshots or watching Millsap isolate in the post. The Warriors were having their own issues with ball security, making the early going a low scoring affair.
Even when Denver got good looks and second chances they still weren’t getting them to go down. Slowly but surely the Warriors were building their lead. Coach Michael Malone left Jamal Murray out with the bench but that did little to spark the offense. Murray was ice cold and the bench’s struggles had carried over from the previous two games. Mason Plumlee gave the Nuggets a small spark at the end of the quarter with a nice dunk off the P&R, but they still trailed the Warriors 25-17 after one.
Denver’s bench finally got some momentum when Lyles hit a mid-range jumper and Harris followed up with a three pointer to force a Warriors timeout. Jonas Jerebko provided the offense out of the timeout for Golden State with five straight points but the Nuggets countered with their two man game between Plumlee and Harris.
It was the Warriors who were struggling with their shot in the beginning of the second quarter but were able to dominate the offensive glass. The Nuggets bench wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire but they brought enough energy to keep the team’s heads above water while the starters got some rest. They closed the gap to three points when the starters began to check back in at the 7 minute mark.
Despite having Hernangomez on the floor to be the primary defender on Durant, KD was the one player the Nuggets were unable to slow down in the second. Even when they had good defense it wasn’t enough to contain the Warriors superstar. Once Curry checked back in the Warriors really got cooking and quickly pushed their lead back up to 8.
The Nuggets starters, in particular Jokic and Harris, started to find their rhythm and responded in kind. Murray got into foul trouble which necessitated Morris return to the court and surprisingly, that was a benefit to the Nuggets who continued to close the gap. Denver’s defense was excellent closing out the half, in particular Craig, but a couple of mental lapses (a pair of missed free throws by Morris and Beasley losing track of the game clock) kept them from overtaking Golden State and they trailed by two points at half.
Like the beginning of the first half, the second half started out slow offensively on both sides. Harris and Jokic continued to be Denver’s cornerstones but they were getting little help from anyone else in the starting lineup. Around the 8-minute mark Murray came up hurt with a tweaked ankle and had to check out of the game and head back to the locker room, leaving all of Nuggets Nation holding their breath.
The Warriors were really struggling from the field while Denver kept grinding. A Harris three near the halfway point through the third put Denver in front 61-59, their first lead since early in the first quarter. The Nuggets kept the pressure on and looked to get out and run. Jokic hit Juancho with a nice full court pass for an easy dunk and the Nuggets started to grow their lead.
Murray checked back in at the 5 minute mark and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately he got back into foul trouble and had to check back out but Morris was playing well so the Nuggets kept rolling. After Monte hit a three at the 3:30 mark the Nuggets lead had grown to 8. Malone went full bench to close the quarter. Morris missed a couple looks but Plumlee recognized the mismatch he had with Kevon Looney and abused him in the paint. Morris closed out the quarter with a nice drive to the hoop to put Denver up by ten and the buzzer sounded to a roaring Pepsi Center crowd.
At the beginning of the fourth it felt like if the Nuggets could go on a quick run they would put the game away. The Warriors seemed to be getting disheartened watching so many shots clank off the rim and the crowd in Denver was ready to explode if Denver could pull away. The Warriors kept hanging around though, getting a bucket every time they needed early in the quarter to keep the Nuggets from going on a run.
Jokic hit three straight free throws to keep Denver in front by double digits and then hit a nice mid range fade away but again Golden State got just enough on the offensive end to keep Denver from pulling away. Curry and Durant started to heat up for the Warriors and their combined efforts got Golden State back within four with just under six minutes to go.
Once again, Harris was the hero for Denver making a couple key buckets to keep them in front. Durant countered on Golden State’s end as it became clear the Nuggets were going to have to overcome two of the best players in the NBA to secure a victory. Jokic uncharacteristically missed two straight free throws and then Andre Iguodala put on his best Oscar performance with a terrible flop that the refs fell for.
As the quarter turned past the four minute mark it was an extremely tight game. Just as had been the case all quarter, the Nuggets would look like they were on the verge of running away with it but just missed that one key play to take complete control. Curry hit a beautiful floater off the backboard at the two minute mark to pull the Warriors within two and an Iguodala slam tied it up at 1:30 to go.
Harris got one of two free throws on the other end and then had a three point opportunity to try and bury them but they couldn’t do it. The Warriors continued to miss shots and Murray missed another free throw but Millsap grabbed the offensive board and headed to the line with 11 seconds left.The Nuggets atrocious free throw shooting continued to haunt them as Millsap went 1-2 to give the Nuggets a 2 point lead.
Murray followed Green to send him to the line but he could only convert one of two and the ball went out of bounds off the Warriors. Denver successfully got the ball into Murray who was fouled but once again they failed to convert at the line and Jamal went 1 of 2. Despite not having a timeout the Warriors went the full length of the court and got a great look but unsung hero Juancho Hernangomez made a huge block just before time expired and Denver gets the win.
JUANCHO HERNANGOMEZ: DEFENDER OF ALL THINGS GOOD pic.twitter.com/X9AYwdUVyX— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) October 22, 2018
Best matchup: Gary Harris vs Klay Thompson
Harris was simply outstanding tonight. He had everything going and was looking to be aggressive on offense. For several large chunks of the game it was his offense that was carrying the team. He also played outstanding D on Thompson. Nothing came easy for Klay who shot a poor percentage from the field while still putting up double digit shots. Harris kept the pressure on throughout the night on both ends of the floor and ended up being the key difference in the Nuggets win. In the preview I wrote this was an even matchup, which felt a bit odd given Thompson’s notoriety and accolades, but after tonight if anything it looks like Harris might have the upper hand going forward.
Main thing I noticed: the defense has stepped up
The Nuggets could have very easily been run out of the gym in the first half when they could get absolutely nothing to go through the rim, but they hung tight with exceptional D. Whether it was Harris locking up Thompson, Craig flying around and making nothing easy or Jokic rotating and hedging effectively, the Nuggets D was what kept them in this game.
The Warriors bring three of the best shooters on the planet to the table but the Nuggets did an excellent job of containing all of them and making them work for their points. What was really noticeable was how well Denver rotated. Every player seemed to know where to go on switches and they managed the mistmatches very effectively. All in all just an outstanding performance from the Nuggets on the defensive end.
Closing thought: Monte Morris is an NBA ball player
Between the ankle tweak and the foul trouble Murray didn’t see a lot of the court tonight. That could generally pose trouble for the Nuggets, especially when they are without Barton but Morris was more than up to the task tonight. He scored when he was open, distributed when he needed to and played solid D like the rest of the squad. He has a presence on the court that can’t go unnoticed. When Monte is in he gives the Nuggets some structure and directs their offense just like a floor leader should. Morris’ play is one of the biggest positives of the early season and Coach Malone is going to have to continue to find minutes for him even when Isaiah Thomas returns.