INDIANAPOLIS – The Nuggets had so much fight in them, even their fiery coach Michael Malone was looking for some.
He appeared to exchange words with a courtside fan, just as his team was storming back from an 18-point deficit Wednesday night. The Nuggets followed Malone’s approach and ripped off a stunning second-half comeback to win, 122-119, for their fourth win in a row and sixth time in their last seven games.
Nikola Jokic weathered an odd, foul-ridden night to power the Nuggets to the win. He saved 11 of his 24 points for the fourth quarter, including a clutch jumper from the top of the key with 33 seconds left to give Denver a 119-117 lead. It didn’t matter that he’d been glued to the bench most of the second half due to foul trouble.
Myles Turner missed a 27-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer that would’ve tied it, but his last-ditch attempt was wayward. The Nuggets got 18 points from Aaron Gordon, and 15 from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They survived despite 20 turnovers, and withstood 30 points from Indiana’s sensational rookie Bennedict Mathurin.
Down 14 going into the third quarter, the deficit got worse before it got better. Indiana built an 18-point lead, taking advantage of errant passes, self-inflicted wounds and an offense that was missing its central hub. Jokic picked up his fifth foul only :58 seconds into the third. He didn’t argue the call and slumped to the bench out of frustration.
But his teammates didn’t quit. Caldwell-Pope buried three 3-pointers, while playing tenacious defense and helping to limit the Pacers to only 25 points in the quarter. Jeff Green’s chasedown block on Mathurin’s breakaway attempt illustrated a similar sentiment. When Bones Hyland buried one of his patented step-back 3-pointers with two seconds left in the third, Denver had trimmed the margin to a more manageable 95-89.
Malone knew the Pacers liked to run and warned his team at shootaround about their preferred pace.
“I’d like to see us really fast on offense, and them not so fast,” Malone joked prior to the game.
But beyond the transition defense, it was Indiana’s 3-point shooting that most concerned Denver’s coach. The Pacers entered Wednesday night averaging 15.3 3-pointers per game, the second-most in the NBA. Limiting their outside looks was among the top priorities.
But Jokic got into foul trouble quickly, and the Nuggets’ defense bottomed out in the second quarter. Turnovers bled into easy Pacer points, and Denver’s 3-point awareness plummeted. Indiana hung 43 points in the second quarter alone en route to a stunning 70-56 halftime lead.
The Pacers buried nine 3-pointers in the half, including five from Mathurin. No one could contain Indiana’s burgeoning rookie.
A hot start evaporated under a difficult whistle, particularly against the two-time MVP. After Jokic picked up his third foul minutes into the second quarter, the Nuggets issued an unsuccessful challenge in hopes of keeping him on the floor. He picked up another less than a minute later, drawing the ire of Malone, who drew a technical foul as a result.