Sometimes the games are easy and fun. The Denver Nuggets posted a 19 point first-half lead and cruised to a 126-95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the second preseason game of the year. Nikola Jokic had a quiet near-triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists while Jamal Murray scored Denver’s first 8 points on his way to 16 points and 5 assists. Paul Millsap paced them early and finished with 18 points while Dozier had 15 off the bench, but it was a balanced attack all around – no Nugget had more than 10 shot attempts. Damian Lillard had 14 points for Portland, and Robert Covington had 15, but the firepower just wasn’t there for the Trail Blazers who finished with 19 assists to Denver’s 39.

Jusuf Nurkic started the scoring with a quick flip over Michael Porter Jr, and Jamal Murray answered inside on the other end on a cut with a Paul Millsap feed and a nice drive to put Denver up early. Denver fought on the glass early, swallowing up defensive boards and getting a Jokic tap-out on the offensive end for a Murray three to lead 8-2 with Murray scoring all 8. Jokic threw this beautiful feed from the three point line for an inside bucket, but Portland came back with some inside scoring. 

Jokic got 2 early fouls in the first 4 minutes, though. A couple of Gary Harris turnovers didn’t help Denver’s suddenly stagnating offense, but Jokic stayed in and got the hockey assist on the Murray-to-Millsap layup for a 12-6 lead. And then Porter swished a deeeeep three. MPJ’s heat check on the next possession from 6 feet behind the line clanked, but a Jokic rebound on defense led to a streaking Murray getting free throws and Jokic somehow needing some cotton for a bloodied nose. Portland went 1-for-9 before a Lillard steal-and-three to close to 16-11. Denver’s passing offense kept leading to easy paint buckets, with back-to-back layups from Millsap and Gary Harris. Portland closed to within 4 behind Damian Lillard, but Millsap free throws and back-to-back threes from Millsap and Monte Morris made it 28-16 Denver.

Barton’s first game bucket since March was a nice inside finish, and a wonderful give-and-go from Isaiah Hartenstein to Morris led to another easy layup. In the waning seconds of the quarter a Hartenstein-forced turnover led to Barton tossing an oop off the glass to PJ Dozier and then Barton completed a 7-bucket run for Denver with a runner at the buzzer for a 41-24 Denver lead after 1.

Dozier opened the second quarter with a bounce pass to Hartenstein for a dunk. Melo hit a three and Denver had a coupele of stagnant possessions but a beautiful fastbreak save led to a Barton flush. Some sloppy fouls and out-of-sync moments for both teams kept the second quarter scoring low for the first 4 minutes, with Denver still leading 45-30 after a CJ McCollum 3. Barton answered with a corner 3 of his own, and Denver kept that lead at 15 until Murray came back in the game. Millsap hit more free throws after getting fouled at the rim, and MPJ had the same thing as Portland’s interior defensive strategy moved from “none” in the first quarter to “foul hard” in the second. Denver’s offense struggled a bit as Portland picked up the effort, but Jokic hit a pair of free throws to make it 58-42. MPJ then got a block and Jokic passed ahead to Harris for a beautiful bucket. 

MPJ still struggled with his shot, hesitating on a paint shot that should have been easy, but a great hustle play by Harris led to a no-look Millsap pass to MPJ for a dunk. Lillard kept leading the fight for Portland and Denver had some unfortunate turnovers and bad rebounds to allow the Trail Blazers to cut the lead to 14, but Murray free throws and a drawn up out-of-bounds play for a curl three from Murray to MPJ gave Denver the 69-50 lead at the break. 

Robert Covington opened Portland’s scoring in the third quarter with a made 3 for 13 points in the game, and Millsap answered behind the arc. Murray hit a beautiful runner off a Jokic handoff, but both teams struggled with offense for the first four minutes. Harris lost another ball going up on the baseline, and Nurkic finished a 3 point play to get the difference back to 19 at 77-58 Denver. Murray threw the ball away after a Denver timeout, leading to a Portland dunk, but Harris got a three point shot to fall. Murray threw another ball away, got a block but Portland still scored. Jokic missed an alley oop to Porter, but then Jokic buried a corner three to get the lead back over 20. Jokic to Murray dropped for another 3, but then Denver had a couple of misses and turnovers while maintaining that huge lead. It was 86-64 despite 8 third quarter turnovers for the Nuggets, but PJ Dozier his a three to answer Carmelo Anthony’s two and despite Melo’s free throws to end the quarter Denver finished the frame up 90-70 despite just 41 combined points from both squads.

The teams exchanged techs to open the fourth, as both Carmelo Anthony and JaMychal Green had something to say. McCollum hit a 3 and got fouled by Dozier, but Dozier answered back with his own 3 on the other end. Green had a three blocked as his tough preseason continued, but otherwise the Nuggets kept rolling and the lead was never in jeopardy.

Facundo Campazzo and Zeke Nnaji came in with under 9 minutes to go as Denver worked on getting more of its bench some action. Hartenstein hit a couple of nice runners, and Nnaji got some foul shots, and then the Hartenstein-to-Nnaji three pointer was quite pretty. Dozier swished another three off a no-look Campazzo pass for a 108-86 Denver lead with 6 minutes to go and that led to Bol Bol and Vlatko Cancar getting in with the lead secured. Bol immediately got a basket and passed to Cancar for a three, and the Nuggets had everyone involved in the action. Bol looked a little out of sorts at times but still buried a three and Cancar got a transition dunk to put Denver up 25. Nnaji moved his feet well on defense and fought hard for rebounds as Bol kept firing. Bol drove the lane again after he previously made a 2, looking to make up in impact what he’s been missing in minutes in the first 2 playoff games, and everything came up roses for Denver in this contest as they won going away 126-95.

Three Thoughts

Gary Harris is still a bit out of sorts. When he’s running for the hoop, he’s fine. In transition or on a back cut, he and Jokic still have that chemistry. But when Harris has to spot up and shoot or handle in traffic it still looks a bit wonky. He was 2-of-5 with 3 turnovers in the first half, after similar first half struggles against the Golden State Warriors in the preseason opener. Starting the second half with another miss and another turnover didn’t help. This looks like the right role for Gary with this team – he’s still massively positive in the lineup (+18 tonight!) as the on-ball defender who can leak out for easy transition buckets and hustle for loose balls – but he still has to take care of the ball and hit open shots. Still, it’s just the preseason. His motor sure isn’t having any problems.

Barton’s fire ignited the bench in the first half. Will the Thrill came out to impress, with 9 first half points off the bench including a three and a buzzer-beater. He was excited to be back, and that excitement carried over to the bench, most of whom had double-digit plus/minus totals by halftime. Hartenstein in particular looked scrappy and willing, while Morris fit in well alongside Barton. In the Warriors game the bench needed Facundo Campazzo’s fire after a lackluster first stint, and in this game Barton brought it from his first step onto the court. With those two looking to team up to lead the bench unit going forward, there should be no lack of energy or scoring punch from that squad. 

Denver was grabbing boards and gunning.  

46 threes attempted, 19 threes made. Denver made only 7 of 18 shots in the third quarter, but 6 of the makes were threes. Denver dominated the glass 55 to 33, and had 39 assists on 45 buckets. Denver played exactly like a fast team with a lot of playmakers and shotmakers should play – especially the way the Nuggets can clear the boards. Yes, it’s only preseason but it was still great to watch.

Looking forward to a lot more of this!