The Denver Nuggets continue to be the best story in the NBA. Despite facing a myriad of injuries, they have battled through all of them to maintain their position atop the Western Conference. Now that they are starting to get healthy again the Nuggets are rolling. Behind big performances from Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris the Nuggets earned their fifth straight win in convincing fashion. The Charlotte Hornets played well and gave it their best effort but the Nuggets were too much and win this one going away 123-110.
Coach Michael Malone elected to not mess with his starting unit, and brought the same group that he has for the past several weeks. The defense was there at the start, with Mason Plumlee stuffing Bismack Biyombo at the rim which led to a fast break three from Torrey Craig. The Hornets responded though, and we up to the task of keeping pace with Denver early on. Denver pushed ahead behind some early scoring by Jokic but their defense had become fairly non-existent and that let the Hornets come right back. Harris had a brilliant sequence where he cut for an easy hoop, then got a steal and buried a transition three but Denver just wasn’t able to string together enough consecutive baskets to pull away even though they appeared to be on the edge of building a big lead at any point. Millsap had a strong close to the quarter and that was able to give the Nuggets a slight lead after one.
The Hornets made short work of the Nuggets lead at the start of the second. Their bench was getting the better of the Nuggets bench and got an early 8-2 run. Malone called a timeout to get the Nuggets back on the same page, their bench came out rejuvenated and quickly took back the lead. Harris highlighted the run with an emphatic posterizing jam on Miles Bridges. Harris was the story of the second quarter for the Nuggets, playing solid D and knocking down shots. Behind his play the Nuggets were able to build up a decent lead but Charlotte hung around. They got a boost of energy from Bridges throwing down a big windmill jam on the break. Bismack Biyombo was have an uncharacteristically strong game on the offensive end which helped Charlotte push back near the end of the half. Millsap came back with a couple solid baskets and the Nuggets still held a slim 58-56 lead at halftime.
Jokic opened the second half with a rare transition dunk and then found Murray on a cut down the lane for an easy dunk. Once again though the Hornets pushed back and erased the Nuggets lead. Denver was really struggling from the three point line meanwhile the Hornets were hitting their long distance shots and also being more aggressive to the basket. It all culminated with Charlotte finally taking the lead with about five minutes left to play in the third. That seemed to finally wake up the Nuggets with Millsap and Harris leading the charge to regain the advantage. Harris was playing an outstanding game and his energy was key as the quarter was drawing to a close, as was Millsap who provided the offense in the final minutes. Malik Monk made a three at the buzzer which drew the Hornets back within five going into the final quarter.
Monte Morris came out red hot to start the final frame. He knocked down back to back three pointers and just like that Denver’s lead was up to double digits. Monk had it going for Charlotte but the Nuggets were able to respond and keep their lead up above ten. At about the halfway point the Nuggets offense seemed to stagnate a bit and Walker was carrying the Hornets. When the lead dipped back to ten Malone called a timeout to get his team re-focused. Jokic came out of the TO with a tip in and then followed it up with a three to put Denver back up by fifteen. The Hornets refused to go quietly though, and came back with a 6-2 run which made Malone call another timeout with just under four minutes to go. The Nuggets came out of the timeout strong once again and pushed the lead back up. When Torrey Craig threw down a monster slam on the fast break with about two minutes to go it was the final nail in the coffin.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Bismack Biyomobo
Bismack had his best game of the season tonight. Hat tip to Matt Moore of the Action Network for saying before the game in the press lounge that Bismack would have a strong performance against Joker. Biyombo made the most of his opportunities and had a season high scoring. Jokic was still the clear winner of the matchup though. He had 27 and 10 by the end of the third quarter and ended up with a season high thirty-nine points on the night. He didn’t let some early shooting woes deter him from being aggressive on the scoring end which was great to see. Got to love the way Nikola played tonight and how he didn’t let the fact that Biyombo was playing well deter him either. Joker also shut Biyombo down in the second half and didn’t allow him to score another point
Main takeaway: Harris and Millsap are back
Gary Harris and Paul Millsap were outstanding tonight and more than once provided the energy Denver needed when they started to get a bit stagnant. Their impact is easy to see in the plus/minus category, where they were the two leaders on the team. I wrote in the preview that I expected both to start the game but coach went with the same starting group that got them on this win streak. I get wanting to have continuity and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it but lets be real here, Harris and Millsap are going to be the starters on this team, not Plumlee and Craig. At this point their play doesn’t look to be slowed by recovery from injuries at all. It’s time to re-insert them in the starting line up for good.
Closing thought: the narrative has changed
Despite the Hornets hanging around for the majority of this game, it never really felt all that much in doubt to me. As we close in on the halfway point of the season I think the narrative has fully changed from “last year this team would have ______” to simply “this team takes care of business.” It’s been a heck of a first half of the season for Denver and everyone is taking notice. The game was a sellout and there was no question about that with the arena absolutely packed. No doubt the Nuggets are the team in Denver right now and with this young core, that could be the case for a very long time.