The Denver Nuggets opened 2019 the right way with a 115-108 win over the New York Knicks in the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night. It was a night of returns as the Knicks started Emmanuel Mudiay in what was the point guard’s first game back in Denver since being traded to the Knicks last season, and mid-way through the first quarter Gary Harris checked into the game after missing the previous 11 with a hip injury.
While Harris did make his return, and Paul Millsap played in his second straight game since missing the previous eight with a fractured right toe, Denver rolled out their ‘JV’ starting unit again—the one that’s held down the fort in the absence of those two and Will Barton.
As is to to be expected, the starting unit of Jamal Murray, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee, and Nikola Jokic played through their star center. Jokic racked up six assists in the first quarter, two of them leading to baskets from Craig, who scored eight points in the first three minutes and ten seconds as the Nuggets jumped out to an early lead.
Despite an encouraging start from Denver’s offense, the Knicks won the quarter 32-28 thanks to their rookie phenom, Kevin Knox. The 19-year-old racked up 13 points in 12 minutes on 5-of-8 from the field and closed the quarter with two converted and-one opportunities in just nine seconds. It was a rough half for Denver’s defense.
The first notable moment of the second quarter came with 10:54 remaining, when Gary Harris knocked down a pair of free throws, his first points in over 11 games. The free throws interrupted an early run from New York, and cut the lead down to six where it would hover for a few minutes as the two teams exchanged buckets.
Offensively, the Nuggets relied on Jokic, who recorded 10 first half assists—his 9th coming with 7:23 remaining, which cut the lead all the way down to three. But Denver couldn’t manufacture a stop on the other end. The initial effort was lacking on defense—the multiple efforts that have sparked their turnaround on that end were missing entirely. New York’s lead grew all the way to ten after Tim Hardaway Jr. knocked down a triple with 4:27 left in the half.
That’s when the Nuggets woke up.
Denver would go on a 9-0 run over the next four minutes, a run that was highlighted by Jokic blocking Mudiay under the basket with 49 seconds remaining, and starting a fast break opportunity that ended in a dunk from Craig—his first bucket since the 8-point burst to start the game. The two teams headed into the locker room with the Knicks leading a one-point game, 56-55.
Knox wouldn’t score another point in the second quarter, but he led all Knicks with those 13 points at the half. Mudiay recorded four points, three assists, and two turnovers, while Noah Vonleh added 11 points. For Denver, Craig was the high scorer with 10 points while Jokic finished with nine points and 10 assists. Harris missed all three of his field goal attempts and finished with four points in just nine minutes. Denver actually outshot the Knicks from the floor, but New York’s advantage from three point land—7/14 (46.7%)—was the the difference in a close half.
The lead was for the taking in a close third quarter, in-fact it bounced around between the two teams a handful of times, but Denver couldn’t quite manage to wrestle back control of the game. The Knicks edged out the Nuggets 28-27, expanding their lead to three, but the quarter featured some big buckets for Millsap, who scored six points in the final three-and-a-half minutes. That got headband Paul going, and was an important stretch in hindsight as Millsap co-led a game-changing run from the second unit to start the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets tied the game almost immediately when Mason Plumlee flushed a dunk eleven seconds in, and they took the lead thirty seconds later when Millsap knocked down a jumper. The next ten points for Denver came from either Millsap or Malik Beasley, with the latter knocking down two three pointers in the opening minutes. Beasley was on fire from deep all night and he went on a tear to close the game out. He finished with 13 points in the fourth quarter alone.
Beasley’s second three pushed Denver’s lead to seven, where it would hover for the remainder of the game. Despite seven points from Mudiay in the fourth, the Nuggets kept the lead out of reach for nearly the entire quarter.
Jokic finished the night with a triple-double, recording 19 points, 14 rebounds, and 15 assists. He led all starters in all three categories, but Beasley finished as the game’s high-scorer with 23 points in 29 minutes off the bench—a new career-high.
Denver played from behind for most of the night in a game in which they were heavily favored. It wasn’t pretty, but they’ll take the win as it pushes their record to 24-11 and preserves their sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets will head to the airport for a trip to Sacramento, where they’ll take on the surprisingly competent Kings on Thursday night. That game tips off at 8:00 pm MT.