The Denver Nuggets came into the regular season looking very confident. After a run to the Western Conference Finals in Orlando, the Nuggets won two out of three preseason games with both wins being thirty point blow outs. At home for their very first contest of the season and against a Sacramento Kings team that might compete for a low playoff seed at best it looked like Denver should coast to an emphatic first win of the year. That would not be the case. A poor third quarter and a terrible close to overtime end up dooming Denver and spoiling a massive night from Nikola Jokic. The Kings guard combo of Buddy Hield and De’Aaron fox gave the Nuggets all they can handle and Sacramento ends up winning a nail biter 124-122
Both teams traded baskets early on with little defense and the Nuggets holding a narrow lead. Michael Porter Jr. got cooking early to give the Nuggets a bit of separation but got into foul trouble just after the eight minute mark and had to come out. Denver’s offense stalled a bit after that which left them with just a four point lead halfway through the first quarter. When the bench checked in the Nuggets went small, running Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo, P.J. Dozier and Will Barton with Jokic. Denver promptly got killed on the offensive glass and yet didn’t get hurt because the Kings couldn’t convert their extra opportunities. With the quarter winding down the Kings rallied behind some sloppy Nuggets defense and got within one. The Nuggets closed the quarter strong behind Barton and got back up by six by the time the quarter was over.
Cory Joseph continued his strong first quarter into the second while Isaiah Hartenstein made some plays for Denver. MPJ came back on the floor but quickly picked up his third foul and had to sit again, meanwhile the Kings weren’t going away even with their bench unit in. The other Nuggets starters checked back in around the eight minute mark and held serve, keeping their slim lead alive. Jokic led charge for the Nuggets while Harrison Barnes gave life to Sacramento. With four minutes to go in the half the Nuggets still clung to a four point lead. Fox was forcing the pace on Sacramento’s end, sometimes blowing past everyone for a fast break off of an inbounds pass keeping the Kings right within a possession. The Nuggets responded and closed out a second straight quarter strong just like the first, particularly Paul Millsap. They went into the half leading by seven.
When the ball movement is just too good pic.twitter.com/GYWZ3DYgnb— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 24, 2020
Sacramento opened the second half with a couple nice possessions on offense meanwhile the Nuggets couldn’t get a basket. The Kings pulled within two before the Nuggets finally got something going to keep the lead with the Kings keeping the pressure on. Once again the Nuggets offense stalled out while the Kings had no problem getting to the basket. They rattled off an 11-2 run to take the lead and force Michael Malone to take a timeout. Jokic calmed things down for Denver, however they continued to have just a dearth of production from their backcourt leaving Joker and Millsap to do all the heavy lifting and the Kings with a one point lead. Luckily for Denver, Sacramento couldn’t stop fouling with the quarter winding down which gave the Nuggets plenty of opportunities from the line. Jokic came off the court to close the quarter and Malone elected to go small with Millsap at center next to Barton, Dozier, Campazzo and Morris. It didn’t work, the lineup failed to register a basket and Denver trailed by five going into the final quarter.
MPJ got the offense going to open the fourth but Denver’s guards couldn’t stop anyone. Joseph, Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, didn’t matter which Kings guard it was they all got to the basket with ease. The Kings lead got all the way up to eight before Malone took a timeout and re-inserted Jokic into the game. Joker continued to be outstanding and almost single handedly was keeping Denver in the game. Porter also gave a strong effort with the quarter half over and kept the Nuggets within three points while Denver’s defense tightened. It became a question of whether or not Murray and Harris would give the Nuggets anything at all to push them over the top. Those guys still weren’t doing much but the Kings offense stalled while Porter and Jokic continued their run all the way to regaining the lead with just over two minutes to go. Sacramento got the lead back and had the ball up two with under a minute to go but Denver fought back to tie it and end up with the ball with 17 seconds to go. Jokic got called for a ticky tack offensive foul and the Kings got one last shot at it with 2.6 seconds to go. They couldn’t get a shot off and the game went to overtime.
Barnes provided the energy early in the OT for the Kings to give them the one possession lead. Barton, who filled in for Murray, was big for the Nuggets and took back the lead with just over two minutes to go. Porter and Hield traded layups before Jokic knocked down a floater to give the Nuggets a four point lead with a minute to go. The Kings got another bucket and then Barton had a wide open layup that was erased by Fox on an outstanding block. Barnes cashed the layup on the other end to tie it with six seconds to go. Joker got fouled on the inbound but the refs swallowed their whistle, Barnes ran down the court for a dunk but was blocked by Barton. In heartbreaking fashion, Hield was their for the tip in at the buzzer. Sacramento steals it 124-122.
Best matchup: Jokic vs all the Kings bigs
Richaun Holmes, Marvin Bagley, Hassan Whiteside, didn’t matter, Jokic destroyed them all. There was little doubt about who was the best player on the court tonight and he wears #15 on Denver. Joker had a triple double before the end of the third quarter and proved that the strong play in the preseason wasn’t just a matter of going harder than the opposition. The Kings threw everything they had at Jokic and had no answers. That’s not to say their bigs were awful, Whiteside had some classic Whiteside blocks, Bagley was solid. Still, Jokic looks every bit like a guy who will chase an MVP award this season.
Main thing I noticed: the guards were awful
Murray had a very forgettable night. It would be completely forgettable if not for one nice dunk which was his only field goal of the game. He also ended up fouling out before the end of the fourth quarter. I hoped this would be the year Murray finally kicked the slow start bug but so far that doesn’t appear to be the case. His quiet preseason spilled over into the regular season for one game at least. Harris wasn’t any better. Anyone hoping he was going to find his shooting stroke again coming into the season was sorely disappointed. Together the Nuggets starting backcourt combined to shoot 5-18 from the floor and 0-9 from three. Barton was the only thing resembling a guard that gave the Nuggets much of anything tonight with Monte Morris also putting up a dud. Denver’s frontcourt can’t do it all. Here’s hoping the backcourt get’s it turned around quick.
Closing thought: it’s one game but that sucks
So the Nuggets officially will not go undefeated this year. At the end of the day it’s just one loss but damn if it doesn’t sting. The Nuggets multiple opportunities to put this game away and overall I think looked like the better team. They got done in by failure to stop dribble penetration from the perimeter and sloppy late game execution. It’s an ugly loss and there’s no other way to put it. Denver will have to take solace in the fact that Jokic looks awesome, Porter casually put up twenty-four points on seventeen shots and Barton absolutely looks like a fantastic sixth man despite his reservations about filling the role. There’s also no time to dwell on it. The Nuggets get the national spotlight against the Los Angeles Clippers just two nights from now. I can’t think of a better time to get into the win column than on Christmas night.