Bandaged and bruised, the Nuggets did it again.
They clawed back from a 20-point first-half deficit, overcoming numerous injuries, to win their fifth game in a row and eighth in their last nine games. Sacramento was in control, threatening to run the Nuggets out of the gym early. But Michael Porter Jr. kept firing, and Nikola Jokic kept plotting, and the Nuggets survived, 113-106, on Tuesday night.
There were numerous guys who rose to the occasion in the absence of Aaron Gordon, who missed the game with a shoulder strain, and Jeff Green, who sat with a fractured hand. Early in the first half, the Nuggets lost Bruce Brown when he landed awkwardly and rolled his right ankle. Still, with the help of 12 guys, Denver improved to 22-11 with a chance at another win, against the Kings, on Wednesday.
Here’s what mattered from round one.
MPJ on D: Offensively, Michael Porter Jr. was underwhelming in Sunday’s riveting win over the Suns. But rather than let that detract from his defensive commitment, it may have sharpened it. If your scoring isn’t going to get you on the floor, at least ensure that your defense will.
Even when Chris Paul was hunting him in pick-and-roll, Porter stuck to his defensive stance and competed, using his length to get in Paul’s space. It was an impressive commitment to the less heralded end of the floor, and one that Porter carried with him to Sacramento. On Tuesday, it was De’Aaron Fox in front of him, and yet Porter managed to contain him. He also snagged five defensive rebounds, a handful of which came in traffic.
It’s that effort that will keep him in the good graces of coach Michael Malone and ensure he’s available in crucial moments.
All of that was to say nothing of his scoring, which kept the Nuggets close in the first half. While the offense was bogged down by missing players and errant shots, Porter kept coming. A defensive rebound led to a transition 3-point chance, and Porter didn’t hesitate on another triple try from well outside his normal range. His 30 points and five 3-pointers marked Denver’s most consistent source of offense all night.
Without Gordon, Porter also seemed to adopt one of his fellow forward’s best habits: moving without the ball. The Nuggets, full of willing passers, took advantage of his huge 6-foot-10 target.
Not joking: It’s a clichéd refrain, but one that’s appropriate nonetheless: Jokic takes what the game gives him. A quiet first half was the result of routine double-teams the Kings threw in his direction. Former Nuggets assistant Jordi Fernandez served as acting Sacramento head coach after Mike Brown entered health and safety protocols. Fernandez knows Jokic’s tricks as well as anyone. With traffic in his face, Jokic was more than content picking Sacramento apart in the first half.
In the third quarter, as the Kings switched to single coverage, Jokic lowered the boom. He scored 14 of his 20 in that quarter, bullying and bludgeoning his way to the basket. As badly as the Nuggets want him to be aggressive, Jokic won’t force his offense. When the Kings switched back to double coverage, he issued more of his devastating dimes. Jokic finished with 20 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds, indifferent that he flirted with another triple-double.
Who’s available? Without Denver’s first and second-string forwards, the onus was Zeke Nnaji, who started in place of Gordon. Nnaji finished with mixed results, six boards and no points, but he was an example of the numerous contributors Denver got Tuesday night.
Vlatko Cancar played 30 minutes, including most of the closing lineup. Cancar buried two big 3-pointers, hit the glass and kept the offense moving. His first 3-pointer came early in the fourth quarter while Jokic was resting. Those points, in that situation, might as well be worth four points.
Mired in a shooting slump, Bones Hyland still managed six assists off the bench. Jamal Murray, who had 25 points, bypassed a wide-open 3-pointer early in the fourth to give Hyland a chance to snap his funk. Hyland delivered in a moment of selflessness.
Davon Reed played stout defense, as did Christian Braun, both wings who were tapped once Brown hurt his ankle. As unpredictable as Denver’s bench can be, enough guys were ready as the injuries mounted. The No. 1 clutch defense in the NBA allowed just 23 points in the fourth quarter. It yielded a gutsier win than fans might realize.