The Denver Nuggets led off their preseason slate with a solid 124-107 victory against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Jamal Murray led all Nuggets scorers with 18 points on 8/12 from the field. Nikola Jokic had 12 first quarter points but struggled for the rest of the night. Juancho Hernangomez was the story for Nuggets fans though, as he chipped in 19 points on 6/11 shooting, including five three-pointers and three blocks defensively.

In their first game of the NBA preseason, the Nuggets were asked to defend James and his motley crew of interesting young players and veteran castoffs. He put up a pedestrian stat line of 9 points, 3 assists, and 3 rebounds in his 15 minutes, but he was clearly doing just fine.

The Nuggets played this game without Gary Harris, who was held out for precautionary reasons after tweaking his hamstring. Torrey Craig started in his place, joining Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic. Denver’s starters played the better part of the first quarter, and the focal point was Jokic, who had 12 points and went 6/6 from the free throw line in the quarter. Millsap made some nice passes to a cutting Murray during this stretch as well. The defense against a smaller and faster team was a work in progress, but Denver didn’t make any glaring mistakes. Los Angeles simply made shots over solid contests, something that Michael Malone and company will have to live with throughout the year. James and Kyle Kuzma were the nominal bigs against Millsap and Jokic at one point, and while LA’s offense thrived, so did Denver’s by taking advantage of Jokic’s size. The bench came in, maintained the pressure, and finished ahead 34-29 after the first quarter.

The first quarter ended and the second quarter began for Denver with some excellent spacing from Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. Simply, Juancho just caught fire. At one point, the Nuggets ran an elevator doors set for him, and the Lakers were so worried about it, he used a quick escape dribble into a pretty midrange jumper. Juancho showed an excellent ability to provide spacing and crash the glass offensively in his rookie year, so a third-season breakout is always possible.

Jamal Murray cranked it up in the second quarter as well, showing exactly why he’s a candidate to make a third-season breakout of his own. Showing a wide variety of offensive moves, the 21-year-old put up 16 points with multiple pull-up threes in the first half, carrying the Nuggets for portions of the second quarter. It was an all-around exciting quarter for Denver, as they led 66-54 going into halftime.

The Nuggets struggled coming out of the gate in the third quarter, despite LeBron James sitting for the rest of the game. The offense did not run through Jokic as frequently, and it showed, as Denver’s other creators couldn’t generate good looks. At one point, Jamal Murray rose up for a dunk in transition and looked to be wincing after.

On the other side, the Lakers did everything they could to go at Jokic defensively, and it worked. Los Angeles came back, and it impacted Jokic’s psyche offensively. When the Nuggets went full bench again, they recreated some of their offensive magic, as Hernangomez continued his perimeter onslaught. He had 17 points and five three-pointers through three quarters, and Denver led Los Angeles 94-89.

The fourth quarter saw both teams utilize their entire benches, and both Hernangomez and Malik Beasley continued shooting the lights out. Beasley in particular was his most efficient self, hitting all four of his three-point attempts. After a few concession baskets back and forth, including some nice plays from Monte Morris, Tyler Lydon, and Thomas Welsh, garbage time truly ensued. When it was all said and done, the Nuggets won this game 124-107.

What the Stiffs said to watch:

Will Barton vs Brandon Ingram

Barton and Ingram were seldom matched up in this game due to Harris sitting, but Barton didn’t have his best showing, accumulating just seven points on nine shots to go with one assist. He wasn’t a focal point in this one, which is fine. I’d expect him to spend more time with the bench unit during the regular season than he did tonight, where he will handle the ball more frequently. On the other side, Ingram looked like a mismatch nightmare, putting up 16 points on 14 shots to go with three steals and arms longer than a car.

Rotation decisions

Torrey Craig got the start tonight, and his defense on Ingram and James was solid during his stint. The boxscore impact was versatile in his 22 minutes, but he didn’t look comfortable handling the ball offensively. The next two guys up to fill his spot in the rotation were Hernangomez and Beasley, and both were extremely impactful tonight, shooting very well and being great complementary pieces.

Denver went with full line changes tonight between their starters and their bench which surprised me. Coach Malone likely wanted to see how those specific units would fair, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Nuggets changed up the rotation throughout the preseason.

Biggest thing I saw:

Juancho Hernangomez may be the small forward Denver needs

Lost in Michael Malone declaring that Trey Lyles may see some time at small forward on Media Day was the possibility that he may not be the best option to fill that void on Denver’s roster this season. Hernangomez lit up the Lakers’ perimeter defense, spacing the floor for Denver’s playmakers and finding the open shot every time. His shooting stroke looked fantastic, and his defense was good enough against Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma tonight to warrant a few more looks during this preseason.

Lyles has a role in Denver’s rotation regardless of what happens. His skills as a creator are important in taking pressure off of Denver’s guards on the second unit. Still, it’s important that Hernangomez is giving Malone different options to play with. A possible look in the future could be Hernangomez and Lyles playing as the power forward and center off the bench if Denver needs more spacing, because Malik Beasley looked good too and may be a quicker, athletic option.

Up next:

The Nuggets will travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers once again on Tuesday night, this time at Staples Center. We will see if Gary Harris suits up, but it will be interesting to see how Denver responds to Los Angeles’ small ball once again, as Jokic didn’t show to be exactly fleet of foot tonight.

Postgame Audio: Juancho Hernangomez talks about the win

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