The Denver Nuggets found a great defensive rhythm on Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, defeating the undermanned Blazers 112-103 in a game that didn’t start off nearly as strong.

The Nuggets lost the first quarter 37-25 and struggled to a find their defensive intensity early on. Anfernee Simons and Deandre Ayton dominated the scoring early, and the Nuggets allowed several buckets to the Blazers duo early on. Credit to those guys for hitting their shots, but the Nuggets didn’t bother them in much any way, and that allowed them to establish a rhythm.

After the first quarter though, the Nuggets won each of the next three quarters decisively, working their way back into the game and ultimately taking the lead late in the third quarter. Denver went on an 11-0 run to close the third quarter and combined that with a nice 12-2 run to begin the fourth quarter. The defense to begin that fourth quarter period was swarming, and Michael Malone was quick to credit his two young guys off the bench with impressive efforts: Christian Braun and Peyton Watson.

“Christian just won DPOG. Thought his activity was just terrific. That’s how he needs to play, man,” Michael Malone shared. “You look at the stat sheet, 1-of-4, who cares?”

Braun’s defense on Scoot Henderson was notable tonight. The exciting Blazers rookie guard had 30 points off the bench against the Nuggets on Friday. Malone challenged Braun to be better, and Braun responded in kind, helping hold Henderson to just 14 points on 3-of-16 from the field. Braun himself had just four points, but he led the team in plus-minus off the bench and provided a fantastic effort throughout the evening in several ways.

“As I told him today, I said: ‘I’m not looking at your stats, your three-point percentage. I’m looking at you,'” Malone shared pregame on Braun. “‘You’re an intangible guy. Your energy, your aggression, your physicality, your discipline, all have to be off the charts for us every single night.'”

Braun made a major impact on the game, as did Watson, who continues to grow in impressive ways. Watson had 12 points, six rebounds, one assist, and three stocks in 30 bench minutes, playing the final 17 minutes of the game and running with the starters to close the game. Watson earned it, shooting 5-of-6 from the field and 2-of-3 from three, making play after play and doing a nice job with his defensive activity.

One of the important moments in the fourth quarter was a possession when Watson brought the ball up the floor out of a stoppage. Nobody on the Blazers picked him up defensively, so Watson casually dribbled into a pull-up three-pointer and drained it. The shot was impressive, but it was the willingness to take that shot from a young player that speaks to where Watson’s confidence in his game currently stands.

 “That’s a shot that I work on. I’m not going to let nobody disrespect my work. I [work on that shot] too much and too often.”

Watson is having something of a moment here with his fourth quarter performances, doing a nice job defensively and turning that energy into offense. I jokingly called him Fourth Quarter P-Wat to begin his postgame presser.

“Just call me a winner, man. That’s all. That’s the only title I need.”

Of course, the Nuggets don’t win this game without Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray dominating either. Jokic put up 29 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists in what I’d call a casually dominant performance. It wasn’t his best, but he was good enough in his minutes for Denver’s bench to be what pushed Denver over the top.

Jamal Murray also had a strong game, bouncing back from his 5-of-21 shooting performance to shoot 8-of-16 from the field and 4-of-6 from three tonight, scoring 21 points in the process. Murray also added 10 assists and five rebounds, making this back-to-back games of double-digit assists for Murray.

“They went zone majority of last game,” Murray shared about his increased playmaking. “Yeah, I was just trying to get everybody in the right spot more today than last game, and then that forced them to change their defense, and from there, they were a little discombobulated on what they wanted to do, I could tell.”

 Jokic and Murray were both essential to the run at the end of the third quarter, putting an unstoppable amount of pressure on an overwhelmed Blazers bench unit. That was the catalyst for Denver’s second half run that spanned the end of the third and start of the fourth.

“It was good to see that,” Murray shared postgame. “We picked it up. The crowd was going, but I think we can do that for the whole game.”

Murray stressed that Denver had to bring that same third/fourth quarter intensity to the first quarter and for the whole game if they want to get where they want to go. It’s a good message, but Murray also noted that it can be tough to finish the pre All-Star break portion of the season.

“Just not getting…excited,” Murray joked. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Everyone can’t wait to get a few days off, except for Joker, so I think we’ve just gotta stay poised, stay locked in, and know that that time will come. We’ve just gotta finish this strong and not let all of the work that we’ve done up until this point kinda slip away.”

The Nuggets now have three full days off before traveling on a three-game road trip to face the Los Angeles Lakers. We will see if they can maintain that focus through the final buzzer.

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