On a night the Colorado Rockies saw their season end in the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets started sorting out their bench rotation with a convincing blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers, 122-104. Coach Michael Malone told Jamal Murray to shoot more, and he definitely did.

Stats were hard to come by in this game, as ESPN’s numbers kept changing and did not add up to the game total. Even Chris Marlowe complained about having three sets of stats with none of them matching each other. That said, the beauty of the game was in the play, not the stat sheet – we’ll skip the specifics.

With four starters out for this game, Denver’s starting five looked like this: Murray / Barton / Hernangomez/ Lyles / Plumlee. The game started with some turnovers, namely by Murray, but then Juancho Hernangomez and Trey Lyles both hit threes and the Nuggets were off and running. Plumlee hit both his free throws as the Nuggets started off 8-0 by eliminating the rebounds from the Lakers while hitting the glass themselves.

Plumlee-to-Juancho-to-Lyles was another nice 3-point shot. Murray had a turnover and some tentative penetration, but netted assists on back-to-back possessions with a 3-pointer by Will Barton and a 3-point-play from a hot Trey Lyles. Murray swished back-to-back threes for a 23-10 lead as Denver shooting from deep was almost unconscious. A sloppy section of ball followed, mostly due to Murray's carelessness with the ball, but his three-ball and Barton's dunk kept the lead easily at double-digits.

Emmanuel Mudiay came on the floor with Kenneth Faried and immediately turned it over on a pass to Murray.  He had a nice up-and-under step through for a rim basket of the kind we didn't see enough of last year. Mudiay's soft fade also went in, but defense faded a bit with the bench unit that included Darrell Arthur as well as Jameer Nelson as a defacto shooting guard. 

Malik Beasley hit a rainbow in the last minute, Faried hit a jumper, a bank-shot and a dunk to put Denver up 41-30 after one.

Denver's bigs started the second quarter with some buckets, with Darrell Arthur getting a baseline curl for a reverse and Faried sinking a push shot in the paint. Mudiay hit another nice midrange jumper, but the Nuggets had a couple more poor turnovers and awkward play. 

The lead was cut to 9 before the Denver "starters" came back in the game and Jamal Murray took a great pass from Plumlee to score. That was followed by a great oop from Plumlee to Hernangomez that pumped the lead back to 15. Juancho's three ball and Murray's steal-to-free-throws made it 60-43. Lyles had himself a first half with, as did Murray (who hit another three and got back to the line) and Juancho (with his transition buckets and a three at the buzzer). Denver's distance shooting helped them to that 22 point lead at halftime, 74-52.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a three to start the second half and the Nuggets started with a pair of turnovers, but Barton's three followed by a Barton-to-Plumlee oop got the Nuggets back on track. Juancho and Murray hit more three bombs as the main rotation pieces for Denver looked excellent through 3 quarters. Plumlee did the dirty work inside against smaller men on both ends of the court but still got buckets.

Denver’s bench came back on the court around the 5 minute mark and Mudiay looked good in all facets: setting up players, rebounding, and pushing the ball in transition. Faried had some quality rebounds and great finishes off of passes from Mudiay and Jameer Nelson, and the Nuggets got to 100 points with 2 minutes left in the third quarter. They ended it up 103-75 in a game that didn’t feel that close – and still had the 4th to go.

Denver started flat in the fourth with some new bodies in off the deep bench, and Malone called a time out 90 seconds into the quarter to regroup. A couple more minutes led to another timeout, as this particular group played an awkward game together while still keeping the lead at over 20 points – and Mudiay threw away yet another pass, this one to Tyler Lydon. Emmanuel hit his next shot down court, then promptly blew his defensive assignment. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Lydon got posterized by Kyle Kuzma at the six minute mark, who was one of LA’s few bright spots on the evening. Faried finished another paint runner and made a strong case on the evening in his fight against the also-impressive Trey Lyles for that backup power forward role.

Monte Morris, Josh Childress and Torrey Craig got in as Denver pulled everybody off the bench, and that unit also struggled with some consistency as the game devolved further into the glorified-scrimmage realm. Malone called another timeout under two minutes with a 24-point lead because he didn’t like what he was seeing. The pre-season is for coaching, after all. The 122-104 was somehow slightly disappointing. I’m sure Nuggets fans will take that kind of winning disappointment all season long.

Three takeaways:

Still not seeing Jamal Murray as a point guard, but he's gonna be a really good player

Murray dove on a loose ball to snag possession for Denver in the first but then had two silly turnovers right after it, one throwing a lob that was nowhere near Plumlee and the other was dribble off his foot on a drive from the top of the key. Will Barton handled a lot of the point guard duties tonight with Murray playing off-ball quite a bit. If you were expecting someone to give Murray the keys to the offense tonight, the one key he turned a lot was his jumper. The rest mostly stayed in his pocket.

Emmanuel Mudiay’s weaker handle and turnover propensity is concerning, and cause him all sorts of trouble with pressure defense. That said, he understands what his role is supposed to be on this team. Murray is a shooting guard playing point guard at this point in his incredibly-young career.

For this team, with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap handling so much of the passing load, that might be okay for Denver at the point guard spot, but the more that Murray can learn to do with the ball in his hands – while still keeping the aggressiveness and shot-making that Malone wants from him – the better this team will be as the season goes on.

Fast-break defense is still a weak spot.

Denver has a problem with getting in passing lanes on long-court plays.  They take poor angles to cut off transition buckets and struggle to get back off of turnovers – which they have committed a ton of in the first few pre-season games. Denver cannot keep giving up so many easy points to teams that they thoroughly outclass in the half-court; it didn’t matter what group of players were on the court, the transition defense was terrible. At least Malone has some stuff to yell about on film.

The Nuggets can shoot

At least against the lesser defenses in the league.  Denver is bombing from downtown this pre-season, hitting what at least one stat site said was 14 of 25 threes in the first half of this game. Open looks go down, which is worlds different from several former eras of Nuggets basketball. Murray, Harris and Juancho are all perfectly suited to this sort of space-and-fire offense, even without Jokic and Millsap in the game. Whatever else happens this year, the Denver front offense is getting many of their rotation pieces in place for long-term contention. Juancho might say he’s a little sapped after his Eurobasket experience, but his play sure isn’t showing any of that.

Two years ago the mandate was to get shooters. Netting Murray and Juancho in the same draft has put Denver in a great place. If the Nuggets hope to win some playoff games this year, those players – and their shooting prowess – will play a prominent role.