The Denver Nuggets hosted the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night on the second night of a back-to-back for the visitors, looking to apply pace and pressure to a tired squad. What they got was a Bucks team that couldn’t miss in the first half, shooting 70 percent from the field over the first 24 minutes to put the Nuggets in an 11 point half-time hole. The Nuggets battled back with a ferocious performance on both sides of the ball, turning that deficit into a 7 point lead by the end of the third quarter.

They stretched the lead to double-digits at the start of the fourth but gave it all back and more as the starters seemed to flag again at the end of the game, needing a desperation bucket at the end and locking down one more Bucks miss with defense to win it. Kenneth Faried was the late-game hero on both ends, securing the airball put-back to put the Nuggets in front for good as well as defending Khris Middleton’s final attempt to seal the game. Danilo Gallinari led the way with 25 points (despite shooting that airball) but Emmanuel Mudiay had his second great game in a row with 16 points, 11 assists, and just one turnover. The bench was also a huge help, with Nikola Jokic leading the way. He had 8 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in just 14 minutes, and helped ratchet up the defense as well with active hands in that third quarter. The Bucks were led by Jerryd Bayless as he had 22 points off the bench and single-handedly pulled them back into the game at the end. Greivis Vasquez had 15 points, all in the first half to go with 9 assists, and Greg Monroe posted a nice 18 / 10 double-double in a losing effort.

Game flow:

The Nuggets started with a nice dish from Hickson to a driving Harris who got the easy layup. Gallinari drove into the lane and got a couple of foul shots early, signifying a change from his approach against Portland. Milwaukee was hitting inside and outside but Hickson took a pass to the rack for points early. Both teams pounded the paint in the opening minutes since neither team had a great paint defender. Another layup by the Bucks put them up 9-6.

Gallo hit an outside jumper and Mudiay snuck a great inside pass to Hickson at the rim. Gallinari forced a turnover that turned into a fastbreak and dunk by Faried. Another dunk by Hickson after Faried cleared out the defense with a hard post-up helped the Nuggets take the lead 14-13. The Bucks kept hitting shot after shot late in the clock and with defenders nearby, but Faried's hustle for offensive boards helped keep the Nuggets in touch. Mudiay drained a three behind a Faried screen, then dribbled through the paint and hit a turnaround jumper. A turnover led to a Harris-Mudiay break that finished with a Mudiay layup and a 23-22 lead for Denver. The Bucks kept hitting their own desperate outside shots, though, and Middleton swished a 3 at the buzzer to put the Bucks up 32-25 after one.

Foye started the second quarter off with a pass to Jokic, who mad another unselfish pass to Darth for two, but the Bucks hit another 3 (5-for-7 so far) to answer. Jokic fights for an rebound and layup, then passes out of traffic for a Papanikolaou 3. Jokic hits a nice roll layup and then drives the baseline for an uncontested reverse, but the Bucks just won't come down to earth, and keep hitting jumpers. 41-36 Bucks. Jokic and Barton hooked up for some nice transition points and the whole second unit moved the ball very well, but the Bucks were red-hot from everywhere on the court, contested or not. Mudiay drove to the basket for a foul to get a point for the Nuggets, who still trailed 46-41 despite some nice offense. Hickson was called for his second goaltend during a 13-5 run by the Bucks, who would not be denied. Gallo hit a wide open 3 and came back with a 3-point play to close it to 7, but a backdoor cut by Milwaukee extended the lead and the half ended on a Khris Middleton bucket. The score was 64-53 Bucks as Milwaukee had their best half of the year.

Halftime stats:

– Bucks shoot 70% for the half, Nuggets 52%

– Milwaukee was 8-of-11 on 3s

– Bucks outrebound Nuggets 15-13, but 6 offensive boards keep Denver in it

– Denver outbreaking Milwaukee 10-4

– Gallo has 14 points, Mudiay 8 points / 7 assists

– no free throws for the Bucks

– 16 assists for both teams

The Bucks swished their first shot of the second half to continue the theme, Gallo took a great feed from Mudiay on another open 3 and swishes it. Khris hit another 3, but Gary Harris answered with one of his own. Milwaukee finally misses and Harris hits a second 3 to cut it to 69-62 and Mudiay’s aggressive drive and side-step jumper forced the Bucks to call a timeout. Gallo swished a three to get to 20 points, Faried hit a couple of free throws and Mudiay carved up the lane for a layup in traffic to cut it to 75-73. Faried blew a pair of free throws but stripped Henson and sank a fastbreak layup to put Denver back on top at last, 77-75.

Mudiay flopped a charge on Giannis – already getting star calls. The Nuggets had a 6-0 advantage in turnovers in the third to that point. Gallo got himself to the line for 2 more, then drained a 3, and the Bucks couldn't get a shot off at the end of the quarter. 87-80 after 3 as the Nuggets come out of halftime on fire and take it to Milwaukee in every area.

The Nuggets passed the ball all around the half court to start the fourth before Foye hit a nice little step-in 2. Jokic was altering shots and grabbing rebounds with very active hands. Barton hit a 2 after a Jokic rebound to push the lead to 11. The Bucks couldn't get anything inside against that unit and Foye hit another for a 93-80 advantage. Foye fouled Bayless out of the timeout, however, and that led to Bayless scoring every point for the Bucks in a several minute stretch as they crawled back into the game. He snagged another 3 point play to cut it to 6. Mudiay finally came back in after leaving late in the third, but Foye blew a couple of shots in a row. A terrible errant horn caused the Nuggets to stop playing but the Bucks kept going and scored to bring the deficit to 2 as Denver looked listless and out of gas. Gallo turned it over and Faried blocked an easy layup but the Bucks tied the game at 98 with a 3-pointer, then took the lead. A bad offensive foul call on Mudiay caused another turnover but he came right back down the court and drew two foul shots, hitting one with 46.5 seconds to go. Faried outfought Monroe for the rebound after a Bucks miss and Mudiay drove back down for two more free throws, this time hitting them both.

Giannis rolled in a tough catch-and-finish over a leaping Faried to steal the lead back with 17.5 seconds left at 102-101. Malone drew up the last play for the home team in their final timeout, but Gallo got trapped at the three-point line and fired off a horrible airball – that Faried caught and put back for the lead with 5 seconds to go. Khris Middleton fought through traffic for a corner shot against a switching Faried but it rimmed out at the end as the Nuggets held on 103-102.

3 observations:

1) The Manimal is motivated. Kenneth Faried cleared a ton of space in this game, and was everywhere on the court. He had a bit of trouble slowing Monroe's bulk, but otherwise got putbacks on transition buckets, and forced early postups, drew defensive attention for his rebounding and cleared room for the rest of the Nuggets to operate. Faried put up 11 points in the third quarter to drive the comeback but his most impressive sequence of the year was the rim-running offensive rebound on Gallinari's airball to gain the lead, and his defensive awareness to switch hard onto Middleton on the final shot. The Bucks tried to use Monroe to pick Middleton's defender on the in-bounds play and allow Khris an open shot, but Faried saw it and switched out aggressively – without fouling – to deny Middleton the look he wanted. It was a heads-up play by a player not always known for those on defense. 19 points, 9 rebounds and a victory were all on the shoulders of the Manimal tonight. He came through in a big way.

2) The defensive grinding in the third quarter shifted the game. Both starters the bench had active hands and swarming bodies, denying the Bucks those interior looks they had feasted on early in the game so they had nowhere to go when their outside shots stopped falling. More impressively, they did it without fouling. It’s easy to give up inside buckets without fouls, but the Nuggets denied passing lanes and rebounds to the Bucks over that entire 12 minute stretch. It’s hard to play like that for 4 quarters while missing the chemistry of consistent lineups and subbing in lesser players due to injuries, but it was a great glimpse at what this team could look like once things settle down. Mudiay said after the game that the Nuggets identity is, “Defense, defense, defense.” For at least one quarter tonight it certainly was. Special shoutout to Nikola Jokic for his efforts as well. He doesn’t have his NBA strength yet but he’s a willing fighter and had some great positional work tonight in limited minutes. He has to learn the lesson that Joffrey Lauvergne and Emmanuel Mudiay also did: The NBA is no place to be tentative. Once he cures himself of that ill, the sky is the limit.

3) A rookie and a rooster shall lead them. In the preview I said Gallo needed to have a big game against the Greek Freak, and he did. Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the bench for most of the final minutes of the game while Gallo was in the thick of it trying to win. Once again most of Gallinari’s work was done in the first 2 and a half quarters, but he kept Denver in the ball game when the Bucks were shooting like they were the Warriors, and he helped lead that third quarter charge.

Emmanuel Mudiay solved the assist-to-turnover ratio issue with an 11:1 mark for the game, which happens to be a record:

His passes were crisp and sometimes breathtaking, and while his shot is still a work in progress (5-for-16, 1-for-6 from deep) he forced his tempo and dictated the game as the only real point guard on the floor for the Nuggets. Once again his late free throws helped win the day, and he wanted this one badly. Mudiay may be cool as a cucumber most of the time, but his desire to win is boundless – and sometimes he even lets it show. Here's his reaction to Faried's game-winning points.

Enjoy the journey, and the hard-fought victory.

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