Tonight’s game between the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks featured two teams that got off to a hot start but were facing some adversity. The Nuggets were on a two game losing streak and the Bucks arrived in Denver early in the morning after losing at the buzzer to the Los Angeles Clippers last night. Despite the difficulties, the two teams lived up to the billing as two of the best teams in the NBA and played a back and forth affair that went down to the final moments of the game. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez were the catalysts for the Bucks and they were able to overpower both tired legs and big performances from Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap to close out the game late and seal a victory. The Nuggets have now lost three in a row.

Coach Michael Malone switched things up by electing to start Juancho Hernangomez over Torrey Craig but the Nuggets still opened the game with tough defense and a heavy dose of Jokic on offense. Milwaukee was up to the task early on and responded with scoring efforts from several players to keep pace. The stingy defense started to fade which the Bucks took advantage of to get a slim lead. Jokic continued to be aggressive on offense and that helped Denver to keep pace with Milwaukee’s balanced attack. Coach went small when he gave Jokic a rest, electing to leave Millsap out with the bench. It paid dividends as he repeatedly hit from beyond the arc. Monte Morris closed the first quarter with a nice dribble pull up to give the Nuggets a two point lead.

Jamal Murray opened the scoring in the second with a pull up but he landed awkwardly and for a moment it looked like he tweaked his ankle. He stayed in the game for the time being. The Bucks combination of Giannis and Brogdon was working on offense. The Greek Freak had a moment befitting of his moniker when he crossed up Trey Lyles and posterized Mason Plumlee. To Lyles credit, he was providing the majority of the offense for the Nuggets which was enough to hold the lead until the starters came back in. Giannis continued to abuse the Nuggets defense but Denver was able to match Milwaukee basket for basket. Millsap in particular was giving the Bucks trouble, he knocked down his three point attempts and also put Ersan Ilyasova to task with his dribble drives that generally resulted in a trip to the free throw line. Despite Millsap’s outstanding play, Milwaukee kept pouring it in. Brogdon hit a three at the buzzer which extended their lead to 63-59.

Antetokounmpo and Jokic picked up right where they left off in the first half but it was Nikola who had the advantage overall and pushed the Nuggets back into the lead. The run was highlighted by a denial at the rim from Jokic on Giannis. Milwaukee answered with a run of their own that everyone but Giannis scored on. Brook Lopez in particular was hurting the Nuggets from beyond the three point line, he hit three in a row from out there which stretched the Bucks lead out to ten points and forced coach Malone to take a time out. Lopez came out of the timeout still red hot but the Nuggets were at least keeping pace. They pushed as close as seven but poor execution down the stretch allowed Milwaukee to take the lead back to eleven.

Lyles opened the fourth quarter with a three and then Beasley hit a pair of his own to bring the Nuggets back within four. Lyles followed up with a drive to the lane and the Bucks were forced to take a timeout. The Nuggets bench came out of the timeout with energy to get the game tied. Murray checked back in and he provided the scoring for Denver midway through the quarter, helping them to regain the lead via a 17-4 run. Milwaukee started to show the effects of playing in L.A. last night. Their ball security got sloppy and their shots started falling short. Lopez as well had appeared to have finally cooled off. The Nuggets had a couple opportunities to pull away but they just couldn’t string together enough solid possessions to put Milwaukee to bed with the quarter dwindling down. Bledsoe hit an and-1 just before the four minute mark to give the Bucks back the lead. The Nuggets pushed back as the game went down to the wire with the two teams trading the lead. Denver got sloppy in the waning moments which put Milwaukee up by three as the clock passed one minute to go. Middleton hit a tough mid range shot and Millsap responded with a dunk. Inan absolute blunder of late game execution, Harris quickly and inexplicably fouled Middleton (87% free throw shooter) with 30 seconds remaining despite Denver being down by only three. Middleton would convert both. Just to complete the meltdown, the Nuggets carelessly threw the ball away on the inbound and sealed their fate. Milwaukee wins 121-117.

Best Matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Brook Lopez

Jokic had the hot start, but Lopez had a ridiculous third quarter going 6 of 7 from three. It was one of the more ridiculous scenes on a basketball court as Lopez looked more like Steph Curry than a big man who’s journeyed around the league. On the other side, Jokic remained a key for the Nuggets throughout the game and looked aggressive shooting the basketball. He wasn’t quite Lopez-esque from three point land but he definitely had his shot going. Both players faded a little down the stretch and that would wind up hurting the Nuggets more than the Bucks but all in all it was still fun to watch both of these big men play.

Main thing I noticed: Juancho looked good with the starters

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For the first time in what feels like forever, the Nuggets starters didn’t dig a giant hole to start the game. Having Juancho out there definitely made a difference and he showed he can be effective in Denver’s offense with a nice DHO three from Jokic. On the con side, there was far less defensive effort tonight and that was true from the starting whistle. It was certainly good to see Denver’s starters get off to a strong start but they still need to find that balance between being a total clunk fest on offense or letting a team rack up points on them with ease. They also can’t continue to have complete collapses like they have the past two games.

Closing thought: gut punch

It looked like Denver had what it was going to take to win this game and you figured when they got up four with about five minutes to go in the game that they were headed towards outlasting the Bucks and handing them their schedule loss. Instead they completely blew it down the stretch and let Milwaukee steal a win from them. The loss was eerily similar to the one against the Brooklyn Nets just two days ago and neither is going to leave a good taste in their mouths. A rough week overall for the team and they’ll need to bounce back quickly or else that 9-1 start will seem like a distant memory.