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Nine nuggets for the nine-point lead Utah built up in the third quarter of Saturday’s game, which got wiped away like a pebble in a downpour in a 103-88 Denver win.
1. There’s a different vibe to this Nuggets team. Gary Harris wasn’t kidding when he made that claim last week. Mason Plumlee 3-pointers, consistent contributions from Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley, and a defense that’s transformed from soft to suffocating are all part of the new aura. The Nuggets are capable of beating opponents in other ways besides putting up 120 and praying that’s enough.
2. The second half of Saturday’s game was a prime example. The Jazz seized control in the third quarter. The Nuggets fell behind by nine points. They looked dead in the water. They couldn’t make shots. Then the fourth quarter rolled around, and everything changed. Denver won the decisive 12-minute stretch 35-15. A reserve-heavy unit fueled the onslaught. Beasley, Hernangomez, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee formed Voltron with Jamal Murray to blow Utah away.
3. There were so many highlights to choose from in that fourth-quarter bloodbath, but one stands above the rest like a Plumlee brother at a music festival. With a little less than 9 minutes to go, Plumlee caught the ball on the right side of the floor with the shot clock winding down and uncorked a 3. Plumlee had never connected on a 3 in 424 career games coming into Saturday. For whatever reason, the basketball gods smiled on him in one glorious moment.
“It was cool,” Nikola Jokic said. “I need to start catching lobs. That is going to be the new thing. Did you see Mark Price on the bench? He was hilarious. He was having the most fun.”
Price is the Nuggets assistant who’s spent the early part of the season working with Plumlee on his stroke. The two spend a lot of time rehabbing Plumlee’s approach at the free throw line. Plumlee is 6 for 19 on free throws this season, which comes out to 31.6 percent. He’s a much better shooter from behind the arc, where he’s shooting a sizzling 100 percent.
4. The play of the game was Plumlee’s 3. The runner up might have been Plumlee swatting away Joe Ingles’ lob pass to Rudy Gobert.
Plumlee is impacting the game in so many different ways right now. He’s averaging 3.3 steals per 100 possessions, which is first on the team, and 12.9 rebounds per 100 possessions, which is fourth. He’s packing a lot of production into 17.3 minutes per game.
“I think about this all the time,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Mason was a starter on a playoff team, and he’s here. He’s backing up one of the best young bigs in the NBA. Not an easy situation. I don’t think anybody could’ve handled it any better than Mason Plumlee has.”
5. There’s no doubt Plumlee would play more if the best passing big men of all time wasn’t in front of him. Jazz coach Quin Snyder said before the game that Jokic might be the best passer in all of basketball. That’s high praise from one of the NBA’s sharpest minds.
Jokic dished out 16 assists against Utah, which was just one off his career high, to go along with seven points and 10 rebounds. He’s averaging 7.7 assists through nine games. Wilt Chamberlain set the record for assists per game by a center in 1966-67, when he averaged 8.6. Eclipsing that mark would be extremely difficult, but it’s not completely out of the question. Imagining that it’s even possible for a center to break Chamberlain’s assist record is an accomplishment unto itself.
6. Jokic is an offensive savant who altered Denver’s trajectory when he became the starting center two years ago. The Nuggets have piled up the points since then, but they’ve also given them up in bunches. Not anymore. Paul Millsap deserves the lion’s share of the credit for leading this turnaround. But the strides Jokic has made on the defensive end are significant.
“He’s doing a really good job,” Malone said at shootaround. “Once again, defense is about caring, about pride, about commitment.”
Jokic didn’t transform his body this summer. He’s got the same doughy build as last year. The biggest difference is he’s trying harder. That’s a theme for players up and down this Nuggets’ roster.
7. Last season, Denver allowed 109.9 points per 100 possessions. Through nine games, that mark has dropped all the way down to 100.9 points per 100 possessions. The Nuggets have the third-best defensive rating in basketball after holding the Jazz to 40.7 percent shooting. The difference?
“It’s the effort,” Harris said. “We know our principles. We’ve got to help one another out and do it on a nightly basis.”
Ask the players, coaches and front office members, and they’ll say the same thing: The Nuggets aren’t doing anything different schematically to get stops. They’re just making multiple efforts, and they’re more focused. It’s almost unthinkable that they could shoot so poorly from outside and win like this.
“I kind of hope (the 3s don’t fall) so our guys understand they can win with defense,” Malone said.
8. The 2016 draft class continues to look better and better. The Murray-Hernanagomez-Beasley haul the Nuggets landed in the first round two and a half years ago are all making positive contributions. Murray established himself as a cornerstone piece last season. This year, Hernangomez and Beasley are showing signs of developing into valuable rotation pieces.
Hernangomez turned the tide in the second quarter of Thursday’s game against the Cavaliers with a flurry of 3s. On Saturday, Beasley did the same in the fourth quarter by canning three 3s. The Nuggets outscored the Jazz by 20 points in his 19 minutes on the floor.
“Right now, he’s confident, and he should be,” Malone said. “Malik puts a lot of time into his craft. That’s where confidence comes is born, from repetition to repetition. He made great reads tonight. They went under (screens), and he stopped behind and made big, big shots.”
9. This is my third season covering the team. I’ve never heard the Pepsi Center get louder than Saturday during the fourth quarter when Gobert stepped to the free throw line. The energy Nuggets fans brought was another level, and that didn’t go unnoticed by the players.
“Me and G (Harris) we’re just talking in the shower, our crowd has been great,” Plumlee said. “I hope they keep coming out. It’s fun. It’s uplifting. It’s a great atmosphere. The runs are really fun when you have the crowd.”
Harris, Denver’s longest-tenured player, was here during the dark days. He was a rookie in 2014 when the Portland Trail Blazers hung 84 points on the Nuggets in the first half.
“Awwww man,” Harris said as he shook his head. “I remember getting booed off the court one time. It was great, man. It just shows you how far we’ve come. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But it’s been great so far.”