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Golden Nuggets: Denver is defending at an elite level; who saw this coming?

Christian Clark Avatar
November 25, 2018

Eleven nuggets for every 3-pointer Russell Westbrook missed in a 105-98 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

1. No one would have dinged the Nuggets too hard for not getting it done Saturday. They were down two starters — Will Barton (core/hip surgery) missed his 18th consecutive game while Gary Harris (left ankle soreness) was a late scratch — on the second night of a back-to-back and on the road against a tough opponent. All those factors were working against them, so naturally the Nuggets came out and played perhaps their best half of the season. They led by as many as 25 points in the second quarter and went into halftime up 21. The Thunder cut that cushion to six late in fourth quarter, but ultimately, it was too big to overcome. Thanks to some timely baskets and defensive plays, Denver hung on for one of its most impressive wins of the season.

2. There’s a strong case to be made that no NBA team is more dependent on one player than the Thunder with Russell Westbrook. Westbrook carries a Sisyphean like load even though he has two stud teammates in Paul George and Steven Adams. If you shut Westbrook down, you shut the Thunder down, and that’s exactly what the Nuggets did. Torrey Craig, who made a spot start in Harris’ place, did an excellent job of staying in front of Westbrook and forcing him to rely on his shaky outside shot.

Westbrook missed 11 of 12 3s he jacked up. He went 6 of 23 overall, while the Thunder collectively shot 35.9 percent from the field. Malone’s plan to start Craig as a Westbrook stopper worked out perfectly.

3. Kudos to Craig for coming out and playing hard even though he’d watched his playing time dwindle as November wore on. Craig, who didn’t play in four of Denver’s previous eight games, hounded Westbrook and came up with six offensive rebounds. The Nuggets had a difficult time scoring with Craig in the starting lineup, which was why Malone shook things up. Craig never complained.

4. The Nuggets are a tough team to figure out. They zig when you think they’re going to zag and zag when you think they’re going to zig. Everyone (including yours truly) predicted they’d win with offense. It’s not like they’ve played poorly on that end one quarter of the way in, but the biggest key during this 13-7 start is the defense. Denver is allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best mark in the NBA. Can anyone who expected strides like these not named Paul Millsap please raise their hand?

5. Millsap, of course, went out on a limb and said he was “looking to crack the top five in defense” during training camp. The odds of that happening seemed somewhere between slim and none given Denver’s recent history. The Nuggets were a bottom-seven defensive team for four seasons in a row entering 2018-19. Were they really capable of making that kind of jump?

There are still 62 games to go. Defending at this level will be difficult to maintain. But even if the Nuggets finish somewhere between eighth and 12th, that still represents major progress.

6. Said Malone afterward: “We won with our defense tonight. I think we’ve seen this countless times now. Our guys have bought into that. They know that when we defend at this level, we can not only beat anybody, we can win anywhere.”

7. Mason Plumlee didn’t break out the Mutombo finger wag, but he was a stone wall once again. He swatted Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s dunk so hard in the second quarter, Luwawu-Cabarrot ended up on his butt.

Plumlee blocked four shots in all, the last of which sealed the game for Denver.

Plumlee, who squeezed 11 points, seven rebounds and all those blocks into 21 minutes, has been so solid on both ends. He is third on the team in “stocks” (steals plus blocks) with 42 even though he’s eighth in total minutes. The Nuggets are allowing 95 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

8. Denver needed offense to come from somewhere down two starters and with Nikola Jokic still mired in a scoring slump, and Jamal Murray stepped up. The third-year point guard scored a team-high 22 to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists. Murray has struggled to set up teammates at times, but he had one of his best passing nights of the season Saturday. Look at this laser he whipped to Craig.

One of the biggest knocks on Murray is that he has trouble finding Jokic in the pick and roll. Murray got Jokic the ball in his spots in OKC, especially late in the game when the Thunder were mounting a comeback.

9. Trey Lyles is coming around. Less than 24 hours after scoring a season-high 22 points in a win over the Magic, Lyles needed six shots to get to 16 points in OKC. Lyles, who has struggled with his outside shot in the early part of the season, knocked down both of the 3s he took Saturday. Denver’s bench has been excellent even with Lyles’ offensive struggles. The Nuggets’ second unit is among the NBA’s best.

10. Hope you held onto that Juancho stock. I’ll admit: It was tempting to sell as a bout with mononucleosis derailed his second season. But if these last eight games are any indication, you could make a hefty profit if you sat on it. Hernangomez is averaging 12.3 points and seven rebounds since moving into the starting lineup Nov. 11. He’s shooting 45 percent on five 3-point attempts per game during that stretch and 43.7 percent from long range on the year. The third-year Spanish forward is a perfect fit in Denver’s free-flowing offense, and he’s improved as a defender. That 27-point game against the Warriors his rookie year wasn’t fool’s gold: Juancho looks like a valuable piece for years to come.

11. Winning 50 or more games is a realistic goal. Las Vegas pegged Denver’s over/under at 47.5 before the season started. The Nuggets have the talent and chemistry to blow way past that. They’re third in net rating behind the Bucks and Raptors even though Barton has missed 18 games. They have the point differential of a 59-win team, according to Cleaning the Glass. There is so much talent on this roster. Hosting a first-round playoff series is in play.

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