Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the Denver Nuggets had a huge lead in the third quarter, this time against the Detroit Pistons, before squandering it and barely escaping with a victory 120-113. Unfortunately in this game Gary Harris went down with what appeared to be a serious lower leg injury near the end of the game which could seriously impact Denver’s playoff chances. Blake Griffin had 26 points and 9 assist while Andre Drummond poured in 21 points and grabbed 17 rebounds for Detroit but it wasn’t quite enough – despite the requisite 22 points in 23 minutes by relative unknown Dwight Buycks.

Jokic’s 23 / 12 / 10 triple-double with several blocks was overshadowed somewhat by losing the big lead and by Gary Harris’s injury, but he was instrumental in the victory. Will Barton scored 23 off the bench and Jamal Murray had 26 with a large chunk coming in the third quarter to provide Denver with enough cushion to survive Detroit’s rally.

In the first minute of the game, Ish Smith cut to the bucket in Nuggets-esque fashion and Blake found him in this matchup of passing bigs, but Gary Harris replied with a baseline reversal. Jokic got a traditional 3, Griffin swished one from behind the arc, and Drummond hit a hook and a dunk for an 11-9 Pistons lead.  Paul Millsap made a 3 of his own and Jokic did as well to tie the score at 15, but neither team could hold the other down. It was a front court battle as Griffin and Andre Drummond had 16 of Detroit’s first 24, while Jokic and Millsap combined for 15 of Denver’s first 19, but Jamal Murray’s first bucket was a triple that cut the deficit to 24-22 with under 4 minutes to go in the quarter.  And then Jokic found a streaking Will Barton for this nice transition bucket. 

Neither side had any defense in the first quarter though, and Denver led 33-29 after one. Denver attacked the paint early in the second as Devin Harris missed a layup but Barton got a tough follow on his own miss and Trey Lyles hit a nice hook. Malone swapped his rotations as well to leave Jokic on the floor when Griffin and Drummond were off the floor and that let Denver take a 41-32 lead with 3 minutes gone in the quarter. Trey Lyles hit a three to put Denver up 12, then Plumlee blocked a shot off a Piston and Lyles hit another shot to push it to 49-35, Denver.

Another Plumlee block led to a Barton transition bucket, but Will the Thrill’s outside shot was still off in the first half. Millsap and Jokic came back around the five minute mark but the Nuggets bench had 32 points in the first half with double-digit contributions from both Barton and Devin Harris (and 9 from Lyles). A beautiful multiple-pass sequence from all the Nuggets finished with a Harris lay-in and a 60-43 Denver lead with three minutes to go – and it led to a Stan Van Gundy technical. Millsap and Jokic both missed shots while the Pistons hit outside shots to cut it to 12, and a Jokic putback was countered by a Reggie Bullock 3, but Jamal Murray unleashed another blue arrow. Griffin missed a shot at the buzzer to leave the Denver lead at 14, 65-51.

Denver turned it over to start the third quarter and the Piston scored, but Jokic answered with a three. Jokic and Drummond scrapped for a couple of minutes as the Nuggets missed a couple of open shots but Murray finished in the lane to make the lead 16 again, 72-56. Jokic – after killing Drummond from behind the arc – faked Drummond into a three-shot foul. Great Millsap defense on Griffin was followed by a two-man Jokic-to-Millsap game that finished with a Millsap 3 and a 22 point lead. 

Millsap hit a couple of turnaround jumpers on the wing, then Murray buried a 30-footer to keep the lead in the 20s, but Anthony Tolliver buried some threes in response. Bullock hit another three for the Pistons to force a Denver timeout. Murray flushed a Millsap miss with a dunk follow, then hit a pair of triples to drag the lead back to 25 single-handedly. Denver had back-to-back turnovers on simply stepping out of bounds and Griffin hit back-to-back threes in response to cut the lead to 96-76. Bullock made it three straight from behind the arc, and Denver switching both Millsap and Jokic out at the same time in the second half turned Denver’s offense into jump-shooting and didn’t help the defense either. Devin Harris scored in the paint, but Detroit would not miss and the Nuggets went from a 26 point lead when Jokic left the game to a 14 point lead after 3.

Stan Van Gundy left Drummond on the court to start the fourth after having Blake out there to end the third, and the Nuggets missed shots and turned the ball over in the first two minutes as the lead dwindled to 10. Jokic had to come back in with 10 minutes to go to stop the bleeding on an 18-2 Detroit run, and Denver immediately scored. The Nuggets turned the ball over again, though, and Buycks scored his 16th point to cut the lead to single digits. Jokic got called for a defensive foul on Drummond and an offensive one on the next possession, giving him 4 for the game. More Pistons foul shots cut the lead to just 5 at 102-97 with just under 7 minutes. 

Gary Harris made a drive to stem the bleeding, then slammed home a dunk but was hurt by a Stanley Johnson foul that wrenched his lower leg.  Gary could not put weight on it for a few minutes but then hobbled to the bench for a timeout. He went out to make his free throw, then left for the locker room with Denver up 10.  

The Nuggets went to a weird offense not centered around Jokic for a minute, with a Millsap bounce-pass turnover and Murray denied at the hoop before Jokic went coast-to-coast with a drive for 2. Jokic picked up his fifth foul, then Murray committed a timeline violation for no reason as Denver struggled with focus down the stretch. Drummond made a tough shot over Jokic, Murray turned the ball over again for a transition bucket and the lead was just 109-103. Barton managed to squeeze in a reverse layup with just over 2 minutes to go, and Millsap blocked a Detroit drive. Drummond and Murray exchanged paint buckets, then Buycks continued a career night by hitting a three for 20 points in 22 minutes.  Barton drove the lane to push the lead to 8, Jokic grabbed a key rebound, and Murray made one of two free throws to ice the game. It was a foulfest from there and Denver escaped with a 120-113 victory.

Final Thoughts

Welcome back, bench unit – sort of.  Denver’s bench outscored Detroit’s 33-11 in just the first half, and Jokic being out there to run the offense between the end of the first and beginning of the second quarters was one reason why. Trey Lyles and Devin Harris both shot and drove the hoop, and Barton realized his outside shot was still on the fritz and attacked the paint as well. There were still a few minutes without either Millsap or Jokic on the court in the first half, but the bench unit was warmed up by then. Having Jokic in the game with them smoothed out some of the hemorrhaging that Denver has suffered when they do their full hockey switches away from the starters, and gave him some time away from Griffin and Drummond (not that he necessarily needed it).

Denver trailed by one with under two minutes to go in the first quarter and then blew the doors off with the Jokic-plus-four-benchies lineup – so naturally Malone went away from that in the third quarter to bench Jokic and Millsap at the same time. The bench then gave up an 18-2 run in 5 minutes between the third and fourth quarters. Hopefully Michael Malone can look at both of those performances and find a way to continue to prop up the bench scorers with good passing so they can take advantage of their skills. Just a hope.

Denver can’t keep a big lead. Nuff said. We’ll see what Denver can do to stem the tide during these next seven road games, but their habit of coughing up giant leads is beyond ridiculous now. Whether it’s the personnel on the court or just an artifact of team DNA, it can’t continue if Denver has any hope of making the playoffs.

Prayers up for Gary Harris. The injury on the dunk landing looked bad. Immediate x-rays were negative, but whether he sprained an ankle or fractured a bone, he could be out the rest of the regular season or longer if the Nuggets don’t get lucky on the diagnosis. Fingers crossed, Gary – hope you’ll be okay soon.