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Golden Nuggets: The unlikely player who's bringing the spice

Christian Clark Avatar
November 24, 2018

Four Nuggets for every Mason Plumlee assist in a 112-87 rout of the Orlando Magic on Friday.

1. You expect the spice from Nikola Jokic. The no-look passes, the behind-the-back flicks and the silky fadeaways never get old, but after a while you get accustomed to them. Jokic dug into his bag of tricks in Denver’s demolition of Orlando. He went 2-for-7 from the field but made his imprint on the game with his facilitating. It was clear from the first minute that he was in rhythm.

Jokic finished with 11 assists in just 23 minutes. As great as some of those setups were, it was Jokic’s backup who made the most impressive pass of the game.

Mason Plumlee is playing with swagger this season. When he hauls in rebounds, he makes sure to smack the backboard before returning to the ground. When he blocks shots, he’s started mixing in the finger wag à la Dikembe Mutombo.

Earlier this month, Plumlee even made a 3-pointer.

“He’s improved his range,” Paul Millsap joked. “I think that’s where his confidence is coming from.”

Plumlee scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, handed out four assists and came up with two steals and two blocks in 21 minutes Friday. He’s averaging 16.8 minutes this season — the fewest of his career — but he’s been extremely productive in those bursts. The Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to 4.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits.

Together, Plumlee and Monte Morris have spearheaded Denver’s stellar second unit, which turned a comfortable lead into an insurmountable one in the fourth quarter against Orlando.

“It’s really good,” said Plumlee about the second unit’s chemistry. “We like playing with each other. And we play defense. So that’s good.”

Giving Plumlee an elite table-setter like Morris has helped him play his best basketball in a Nuggets uniform. The fact that he’s healthy after an offseason surgery to repair lingering core muscle injuries has been huge as well.

“Looking back at it, it’s gradual,” Plumlee said. “It probably doesn’t stand out as much as you think. I had a really good surgery and rehab. I’m feeling better for sure.”

Plumlee has starred in a low-usage role this year. Seeing him sprinkle in spice is a strange, fun twist.

2. Like many of his teammates, Trey Lyles is struggling with his outside shot. A season after canning 38.1 percent of his 3-point looks, Lyles is making less than a quarter of them (23.3 percent to be exact) so far. His stroke has deserted him, so he’s had to score the ball in other ways. Friday’s game was a good example of how Lyles is managing, as he scored a season-high 22 points on a diet consisting of drives, put backs and cuts.

Lyles shot 9 of 15 from the field. He made his lone 3 of the night late in the third quarter. The rest of his makes came from 5 feet and in.

“When Trey starts making his 3s, which we know he will, then he’s really going to take off,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But if you’re not making shots, how can I impact the game in another manner? Trey has done a really good job lately of driving the ball, getting to the rim, scoring for himself and making plays for teammates.”

Lyles is good at feasting on mismatches. He’s shooting above 50 percent on post ups for the second season in a row in large part thanks to his ability to blow past and overpower smaller players inside.

If his 3 starts to fall, look out.

3. During training camp, Millsap raised some eyebrows when he said his team’s goal was to finish among the top five in defensive efficiency. The odds of that happening didn’t seem great after Denver ranked 23rd of worse in defensive rating in four consecutive seasons. But here we are nearly a quarter way into 2018-19, and the Nuggets are allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions — the fifth-best mark in the league.

Friday marked the eighth time this season the Nuggets held an opponent under 100 points. They limited the Magic to 40.5 percent shooting from the field and 8 of 32 shooting from 3.

“Defense is what’s been winning us games,” Millsap said. “That’s got to be our staple.”

The Magic missed 47 shots but only hauled in four offensive rebounds, a point of pride for Malone after his team struggled on the defensive glass during a three-game road trip.

“I thought we did a great job of finishing off the possession with a rebound,” he said. “The last couple of games where we’ve lost, at Milwaukee, at New Orleans, we were really hurt on the offensive glass so the defense was great tonight all the way around.”

4. Gary Harris doesn’t look right. That was clear in the way he limped through Friday’s game. Harris, who the team said is experiencing left ankle soreness, fought through the pain but didn’t look like himself, missing several wide-open 3s and bunnies near the hoop.

Harris misfired on nine of the 13 shots he attempted. Luckily, the Nuggets only needed him to play 25 minutes because the result wasn’t in doubt, but they could lean on him more against the Thunder on Saturday. Harris is expected to play on the second night of a back-to-back in Oklahoma City. But if he’s not 100 percent, Denver needs others to pick up the slack. One candidate is Malik Beasley, whose favorite Thanksgiving dish is almost assuredly yams.


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