SAN FRANCISCO – Disaster averted.
The Nuggets avoided what would’ve been a monumental collapse late in the fourth quarter Friday night, staving off a frantic Warriors comeback to secure their first win of the season, 128-123.
After Bones Hyland’s errant pass wound up in the hands of Jordan Poole, cutting Denver’s margin to one with 14 seconds left, Nikola Jokic grabbed the inbounds pass and whipped it ahead to Bruce Brown for a game-saving dunk. Jokic finished the night with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his first triple-double of the season.
With barely three minutes remaining, Jokic rammed home a fourth-quarter jam that should’ve ended the drama before a few of Denver’s 20 turnovers left the door open for a comeback.
The resounding effort, emphatically, erased an abysmal performance in Wednesday’s season opener at Utah. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ended the game with 17 points following an underwhelming debut, and Michael Porter Jr. added 17, with five 3-pointers.
Brown was massive in the fourth quarter, ending the game with 20 points.
Jamal Murray felt good physically following Wednesday’s season opener, but with three games in four nights to open the season, the Nuggets saw no reason to overexert him this early into his return. Besides, Saturday is Denver’s home opener, when Murray can formally return in front of his fans.
Like all great teams, the Warriors didn’t fold. Despite facing a sizable 18-point halftime deficit, the Warriors, inevitably, made their run. As 3-pointers from Klay Thompson and Green fell, the passing lanes started opening up as well. After cutting the margin to seven, the Nuggets answered.
Hyland found Brown in the corner for a 3-pointer, then with his typical panache, found Christian Braun near the hoop for his first NBA bucket. Braun’s impact was profound. Though he finally got on the scoreboard, his defense and his presence were even more obvious.
The Nuggets entered the fourth with a tenuous 98-88 lead.
Far from dismayed in the wake of last season’s first-round ouster to Golden State, Nuggets coach Michael Malone actually found plenty of positives to carry into the offseason.
“If you look on paper, we lost 4-1, so ‘Oh, the Nuggets got their butts kicked,’” Malone said. “I know in my heart that we were in all those games. I felt Game 3, we literally gave away. Give them credit. Those guys are battle-tested. But I felt we were right there, and that’s what makes great teams great. You make one mistake, they capitalize.”
With no Murray on Friday, Malone emphasized that this iteration of the Nuggets won’t be close to their final form.
“I’ve been saying it for weeks,” Malone said. “Probably no one’s listened, no one ever does — this is going to be a process for us.”
That process appeared to take a significant stride in the first half.
The Nuggets did to the Warriors what the Jazz did to them two nights earlier. And on Friday, a defense that didn’t wake up until the second half against Utah arrived to stymie the Warriors in the second quarter. Denver stunned Golden State, entering the break with a 70-52 lead. Chase Center barely registered a murmur as the Nuggets found contributions all over the roster.
With 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists, Jokic was well on his way to his first triple-double of the season. But an 18-point lead over the defending champions isn’t built on the strength of one player.
Porter had 11 points on three 3-pointers, Caldwell-Pope poured in nine, and Wednesday’s most glaring issue, the bench, found some semblance of rhythm under Hyland’s guidance. The precocious second-year guard had 11 first-half points with three assists, playing with a poise that belied his age.
The other standout was Braun, who helped limit the Warriors to just 5-of-22 from 3-point range in the first half. His defense, whether on Thompson or Curry, was relentless and helped keep either from erupting.