The Denver Nuggets visited Miami with their backs against the wall and facing a likewise desperate team on the fringes of playoff contention in the Heat. The Nuggets would get big contributions from Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari and Emmanuel Mudiay which were countered by Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic all night long. Miami and Denver fought back and forth all night long in an exciting game that headed down to the final minute. The Nuggets got a few more key buckets down the stretch along with some clutch free throws from Jamal Murray and survived a shot at the buzzer to secure the victory.

The game opened with both teams scoring easily but the Nuggets were able to gain a slight advantage early on. The Nuggets were utilizing an advantage the Heat were giving them by having Luke Babbitt defend Jokic, whereas Miami was getting points through Dragic. Miami switched it up and put James Johnson on Jokic but he had no answer for the Joker either and Nikola kept the Nuggets out in front. Mudiay checked in with 5:25 left in the first, seeing his first significant action in some time. The Nuggets continued to run their offense through Jokic and find success which stretched their lead to double digits. Denver’s bench kept up the offensive intensity as the quarter closed out but the Heat found their scoring touch as well. After one Denver led 37-30.

Mudiay opened in the second half by doing a very familiar beautiful drive to the hoop followed by a blown layup but Wilson Chandler was giving the Nuggets much needed scoring pop off the bench. Miami’s reserves were likewise up to the task, with Wayne Ellington and Willie Reed responding to each of Chandler’s buckets. Mudiay started finding his groove by hitting a driving fadeaway and then having a pair of nice assists off of his drives. Whiteside countered for Miami, bullying his way to points in the paint. Midway through the quarter each team continued to score in what was turning out to be a very high scoring fast paced affair with the Nuggets maintaining in general a 6-8 point margin. Murray checked back in after some very effective minutes from Mudiay but the Nuggets couldn’t get stops defensively to put any distance between them and Miami. Jokic led the starters to a strong close of the half and Denver was up 68-58 after the second quarter.

Denver opened up the second half cold whereas Dragic was making baskets for Miami. Gallo broke the Nuggets out of their funk with an array of his offensive skills, first he hit a step back two, then he got an easy drive to the rim and finally hit hit a big three. The Heat were relentless though, forcing coach Malone to take a timeout near the eight minute mark when a Rodney McGruder three trimmed the Nuggets lead to five. That would be part of an 11-2 run that ultimtely got the Heat within two points of Denver. At the five minute mark of the third Miami finally did tie it at 79 but a pair of drives by Mudiay resulted in four quick points (one layup, one assist to Gallo). Gallinari picked up the scoring from there but the Heat were converting shots from beyond the arc which kept the game close. Mason Plumlee had a highlight block in the final minute of the quarter which kept Denver’s lead at six points after three.

The fourth quarter opened with missed shots on both sides until the Heat started to get some makes and recaptured the lead at 94-93. Jokic checked back in at that point for the Nuggets and went to work with a pair of high low possessions with Chandler that resulted in four points. Miami continued to strike back from the three point line but the combo of Murray on defense and Mudiay on offense kept Denver in front. Unfortunately every time the Nuggets put together a mini run the Heat would respond. The game was neck and neck as they headed down the final stretch. Gallo hit a big three at the two minute mark to put the Nuggets ahead by six which was followed by an offensive foul by Whiteside. The Nuggets couldn’t take advantage and clung to a four point lead with 17 seconds left and Miami in possession. Tyler Johnson knocked down a three at the ten second mark to cut the lead to one. After a couple of attempts to inbound that resulted in timeouts Jokic got the ball into Murray who was immediately fouled. The Blue Arrow came up clutch, hitting both free throws. Miami had no more timeouts so they couldn’t draw up a play and resorted to a desperation three at the buzzer that missed well wide of the rim. Denver hangs on and wins 116-113.

Best match up: Nikola Jokic vs Hassan Whiteside

Once again the big center battle didn’t disappoint in a Nuggets game. The Heat inexplicably decided not to defend Jokic early on with Whiteside which let Nikola simply shred Miami on offense. However Whiteside used his strength and athleticism to his advantage as well to pile up points on the other end. Both centers ended up having nice nights but this will be something to watch moving forward in Jokic’s career. When he goes up against players with more strength and athleticism they tend to be able to have their way on offense. Jokic is generally too crafty to be rendered ineffective but he lacks the ability to stop powerful centers on defense. Luckily some time in the weight room should help him improve in that area…if he ever stops playing basketball for five seconds that is.

Main thing I noticed: solid minutes from Mudiay

Mudiay took advantage of his opportunity tonight. He struggled from the field early on as he’s prone to do but he would turn it around later in the game and he looked really good distributing the ball as well. Emmanuel had several nice passes and several nice drives to the hoop. He also had just two turnovers in 31 minutes of play, including helping to close out the game. If Mudiay can become a better finisher and shoot around league average overall he can still be a great piece of a three guard rotation with Murray and Harris. Murray and Mudiay have the versatility to be able to play on and off the ball too so Denver could bring Malik Beasley along slowly as that fourth guy in the guard rotation.

Closing thought: go with the youth

Mudiay’s solid play tonight and Juancho Hernangomez’s solid play all season long are intriguing enough to keep going with the youth. In the event there is some sort of miracle run to the playoffs then all the better but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of upside to playing guys like Will Barton and Jameer Nelson who are nursing injuries. Denver’s better off letting those guys get 100% and seeing what they have in the youth. There was a lot to like about how Mudiay played tonight and there’s a good chance we’re looking at a rotation right now that is very close to what Denver starts next season with, I’d rather see what those guys are made of then play some of the vets who may not even be with the team next year.

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