Gary Harris had five 3-pointers in the first quarter, and that was pretty much how things went the remainder of the game for Denver.
Nikola Jokic had 15 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists for another double-double, and Jamal Murray and Will Barton both had 18 points to pace the Nuggets to a 121-104 victory.
Kemba Walker had 20 points in a losing effort, fighting back in the second quarter but getting smoked in the second half as the Nikola Jokic offense continued to slice apart opposing defenses.
The Nuggets jumped out to a 9-2 lead, but weren’t too interested in playing defense, and the Hornets made seven of their first eight shots to retake a 15-14 lead. Gary Harris was in a groove, making five 3-pointers in the first nine minutes to help the Nuggets slide into a 28-20 lead, causing Steve Clifford to call a timeout to remind his players to guard No. 14.
The subs started trickling in, and Trey Lyles loves to shoot, taking advantage of an open shot from the corner to cash in a corner 3-pointer. Once Jokic checked out, the offense got a little sticky, but they were able to get some stops and get into transition, where Mudiay was able to find a crease and get to the free throw line. The Nuggets finished the first quarter with a 36-25 lead, thanks to 15 points from Harris and 11 points from Barton.
The reserves started the quarter off well enough, with Chandler attacking the rim while his teammates chose to zip the ball around for open shots from the perimeter. They began to run out of gas after about five minutes, with Mudiay missing a midrange jumper wide left and then throwing the ball out of bounds as he tried to get the ball to Lyles after dribbling it up the court. Thankfully Malone noticed as well, and he pulled a hockey switch and brought in Jokic, Murray, Harris and Craig. The Nuggets cooled off, with Lyles and Harris missing jumpers, and they didn’t have a professional level of effort on defense, letting Jeremy Lamb drive into the lane for a slam dunk that brought the score to 48-46 Nuggets.
After a Denver timeout, they missed their next two shots and Kemba Walker gave Charlotte a lead. Batum made a jumper, and the Hornets had an 11-0 run to pull their team ahead by three points. Once the starters realized they were getting whooped, they showed a little fight and rallied to tie the game back up at 54. Jokic set a nice backscreen for Harris, who had a beautiful 360 finish on an alley-oop from Barton. The Nuggets were able to take the lead into halftime thanks to a really careless pass by a Hornets player trying to jumpstart a transition opportunity, with Murray making a 3-pointer to finish the half with 10 points.
The Hornets were able to get back into the game for a few reasons in the first half. First off, the Nuggets offense gets constipated without Jokic and Murray in the game. Barton can attack the rim, but if that primary action is well defended, the Nuggets have really poor secondary options with their second unit. That created transition opportunities for Charlotte, and they were able to get mismatches as the Nugget lazily got back on defense.
The second reason is that Jokic had a really terrible half on the defensive side. Howard is a massive human being, and Jokic struggles against that archetype. Howard made all seven of his field goal attempts, and was able to toss Jokic around the paint like he was being guarded by a lawn chair. On one possession, Jokic looked so averse to fighting Howard for position he just wandered around him, like a satellite in orbit. I know it sucks to guard someone bigger than you - I always get stuck on my friend that was an offensive lineman in college, and still weighs way over 300 pounds, and I’m not anywhere close to that - but you have to put a body on your opponent and at least make them work for their points. Jokic finished the half with three fouls, and has to be better, because Plumlee isn’t there to help him out and neither is Millsap.
Both teams were playing some ugly basketball to start the third quarter, but the Nuggets found their rhythm and knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers, with Gary Harris finishing a layup in transition to spur a quick 9-0 run to help take an eleven point lead with about six minutes left in the quarter. Murray took over towards the end of the quarter, scoring eight straight in a one minute span, putting Howard on skates for his first two buckets and then canning a 24-footer that caused the Hornets to call timeout so everyone could enjoy the replays on the big screens.
The reserves checked in after that timeout, and Darrell Arthur was able to get in another 3-pointer. Murray missed a heat check at the buzzer, but the Nuggets had a 97-84 lead going into the fourth quarter. Barton hooked Arthur up for a jazzy alley-oop to start the fourth, and Mudiay arced in a jumper to break the 100 point seal for Denver with 11 minutes left in the game. Arthur walked into a layup (refs missed that one) for his ninth and tenth points of the game, and Mudiay was feeling it from the midrange tonight.
There was a scary play involving Cody Zeller, Darrell Arthur and Torrey Craig. Zeller drove for a layup, Craig blocked his shot, Arthur fouled Zeller (called for a flagrant one), but Arthur cut out Craig’s legs and he toppled to the court. Zeller made his free throws, but missed their field goal, and the Nuggets went back to their usual selves after that. Gary Harris had a nice layup off a dish from Jokic, and then was fouled on a 3-point attempt, making all three of his attempts. Torrey Craig dived to the rim on the baseline for an easy jam, and that was all she wrote for Charlotte, who pulled their starters with three minutes remaining.