For the first time in six months the Denver Nuggets had a home game. They had new colors on the court but Denver’s ability from last season to play down to the level of its competition reared its ugly head as they defeated the Perth Wildcats 96 to 88. Gary Harris got his first preseason action and looked good early, but most of the starters had poor games and scored just 36 combined points. Perth’s Bryce Cotton was the best Wildcat option; he looked like a definite NBA-caliber player out there with 17 points in the first half and 33 for the game. Paul Millsap – who has never been ejected in an NBA game – was thrown out for arguing with a referee, Nikola Jokic was ineffective and looked to be suffering from that finger injury he’s had since the start of training camp, and Denver struggled for three quarters with this one before pulling away late. It’s just the preseason, but that’s not the sort of attitude and intention that Denver can take into the regular season.

Perth came out aggressively, looking to show the result against the Utah Jazz was not a true representation of their level of play. Denver kept mostly to the perimeter in the first three minutes, then passed the ball six or seven times before a Will Barton three. Barton drove the hoop the next time down for a layup, and Gary Harris followed suit for a 7-2 Nuggets lead. Denver’s defense was fine, with Perth starting 2-of-12, but Cotton found his shot from range as Perth closed to 17-11. Gary Harris hit a three to get to nine points for the quarter, Barton had 11, Trey hit a three with a minute left and Denver took the one-quarter lead at 27-16.

Malik Beasley opened the second quarter with a beautiful three pointer, but Perth answered back. Trey fired in another from behind the arc to make it 35-21, then Beasley hit another spot-up three as his shot looked very good on the evening. Denver’s offense had some brief struggles dealing with a zone look from Perth though, until Torrey Craig picked up a poor rolling pass and did a behind-the-back move for a layup to get it to 43-26. 

The Monte-Morris-to-Mason-Plumlee oop was also well-executed. Another Beasley three put Denver up by 20 with five minutes left in the first half, but Perth rallied with a nice transition dunk and some decent interior work to stay in contact at 51-35. Denver then bogged down with some ugly and even lazy basketball. They settled for long threes that didn’t fall in the last few minutes (and did not make a field goal in the final 3:25), had some unnecessary turnovers while Perth kept grinding, and wound up in a closer game than necessary at 51-41 after two quarters.

Harris opened the second half scoring with a baseline bucket, while Jamal Murray took a feed from Jokic for a nice score at the rim for his first bucket of the game, but Denver couldn’t pull away from Perth in the early going. Denver had trouble with the double-team traps and only had 6 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, until Millsap decided to dunk – and then got a technical and ejected from a preseason game on back to back calls for talking to the referee.

Perth then cut the lead to six at 59-53 and Denver had a dogfight. The Nuggets stopped playing their brand of basketball and settled more into Perth’s, with slower half-court play dominating. Perth hit a three with four minutes to go to cut it to 64-60, then another a few minutes later to cut it to one. A Morris-to-Plumlee feed kept the lead at 5, 75-70, at the end of the quarter.

Both teams started slowly in the fourth before Monte Morris got a great steal and finish for Denver’s first points. Torrey Craig fought for offensive rebounds and completed a three point play to make it 80-70, Denver. Morris and Plumlee had a great pick and roll play for a bucket and Lyles drove the lane for a bucket to take it to 90-78 and Denver got out of the danger zone when it came to losing this game. Juancho got a dunk and Morris hit another basket as for the third game in a row Denver’s bench stabilized the game for them. This is the sort of Bizarro World thing that could make a difference in Denver’s playoff goals this year. The Beasley steal and dunk with two minutes to go punctuated the eventual Nuggets victory,

Final Thoughts

  • Denver needs to take lesser opponents seriously. Nikola Jokic is dealing with a finger injury on his shooting hand, but whether or not that was the reason for some passive offensive play it set the tone, especially in the second quarter. Paul Millsap still looks out of sorts, going 1-for-6 in the first half against a Perth team that isn’t exactly dominating inside and struggling to hold onto the ball in traffic before he fouled out. It’s the preseason, against a non-NBA team that Denver can outlast at 60% effort, but that doesn’t mean it’s the effort they should put in. Denver jogged through the game, Perth played hard, and the game was justifiably close. Malone agreed about the effort after the game:

  • Jokic’s hand has to be a concern for the start of the season. Denver needs to start hot this year and that will be tough if Jokic is going to struggle to shoot and therefore pass up being Denver’s lead offensive option due to injury. It’ll be something to keep a close eye on in the last two preseason games, as well as Denver’s ability to find ways to get the ball to Jokic inside. He played much of 2016-17 with a wrist injury but that’s not what the Nuggets want from their max contract player – they need him to be healthy for the season.
  • I’m glad Perth got to show their competitive heart. After the painfully unfair travel conditions before their last basketball game against the Jazz, this was more what the NBL champions should have been able to show. They don’t have the same number of NBA caliber athletes but they play hard and physical basketball of a stripe that definitely got under Denver’s skin. They represented their sport and their league well – better than Denver represented its league.

  • The battle for the rotation in Denver will be fierce. The Monte Morris and Mason Plumlee pick and roll game was pretty strong, and Morris keeps making the case for minutes no matter what eventually happens with Isaiah Thomas. Malik Beasley threw down the gauntlet with a nine-point, three-rebound first half performance with all of the baskets coming from three. Juancho Hernangomez couldn’t get in the ball game in the first half as Michael Malone experimented with his rotation. Trey Lyles got run with both starters and bench players on the court, and while his position is likely safe the minutes will be hard to come by for both Beasley and Hernangomez unless they make Malone call their names. These preseason games are important impressions for the coach to have later in the season.