The Denver Nuggets headed into the New Years as the sole owners of the first seed in the Western Conference. Denver ended 2018 as winners of two-straight games over the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns before welcoming in the New York Knicks to begin the new year as they went for three-straight wins.
In the same game Gary Harris made his long-awaited return to the starting lineup, Paul Millsap also made his return back to the Pepsi Center after missing quite some time. The Nuggets are still down a few players, but Denver is finally starting to get healthy.
Things were rocky throughout the game, but Denver overcame a rough night with a big fourth quarter and a triple-double by Nikola Jokic as the Nuggets ended up winning 115-108 to move to 24-11 on the year.
Here is the good, bad and ugly from another close victory at the Pepsi Center.
The Good — Denver is getting healthy
All things considered, it is rather remarkable that Denver held down the top overall spot. The Nuggets were down six players at one point in time and were so injured that they were granted an injury hardship relief exception deal that landed Nick Young for a few weeks.
To start out the new year, Denver is as close to as healthy as they have been all season long as not only did Millsap make his return to the Pepsi Center after missing eight games with a toe injury, but Harris also returned.
Neither Millsap or Harris started the game as Malone said pregame that he would allow players to slowly get integrated back into game action.
Millsap only played 14 minutes in the Nuggets win on Saturday against the Suns and did not have as big of an impact on the game as he only finished with six points and a block. In Tuesday’s game; however, it was a much different story as the four-time All-Star came alive in the fourth quarter when Denver needed him most. He finished +17 on the night with 16 points, nine rebounds and two steals as he played 22 minutes in the game.
Having Harris back opened up things up for the offense with great spacing. While he did not have a huge game, his presence was felt as he finished the game with six points, two rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes of action.
It is going to take some time for both to get back to their usual selves, but it is great to see both of them back out there and Denver getting back healthy. Starting small forward Will Barton should be returning in the coming weeks as well and Denver will be at full strength.
The Bad — Nuggets first half
The Nuggets went into Tuesday’s game as heavy favorites over the visiting Knicks but that did not mean that New York would not come out and give Denver a fight.
The Nuggets were up and down offensively to start the game and also went through a drought in the second quarter where they did not hit a field goal in over three minutes. Mason Plumlee picked up three quick fouls which forced Jokic into tough spots on the defensive end and the Denver offense started out slow as they were forced into relying on the bench who finished with 23 points at the half.
Denver’s 3-point shooting woes continued in the first half as they shot only 29.4 percent from beyond the arc going just 5-17.
As if that were not enough, Denver struggled from the free throw line as well. Millsap stayed aggressive early on as he continued to head to the charity stripe but he was an abysmal 1-of-6 from the free-throw line at the half and did not get things going until the second half.
Denver did however make a run to make it closer heading into the half as they went into the intermission only down by a single point after trailing by as many as 10, but they cannot take a step back and get back into the habit of slow starts where they must make up for their early game mistakes. These are the type of games that the Nuggets should build and maintain a lead.
The Ugly – A loaded January
If Tuesday’s game is any indication of what’s to come for the upcoming month then there may be plenty to fear for the Nuggets as they face plenty of strong competition in the month and will need better effort if they plan on continuing to be at the top of the Western Conference.
Entering 2019 in first place, despite overcoming some incredible odds due to injury, there does not seem to be a better time to stand out from the pack than now for the Nuggets. Denver has been tested to start out the year, but will be tested in a different way for the month of January.
In fact, January seems to be Denver’s busiest month of the year as they have 16 games in the month.
In the month, Denver has nine games at home and seven on the road. To make matters worse they have three back-to-backs in January alone which makes for an even more hectic month. The Nuggets also have five games in seven days from January 7th-13th where they go from Houston to Miami to Denver to Phoenix and back to Denver. January is a very busy month, Denver will just have to find a way to maintain.
On the bright side, the Nuggets have West’s easiest schedule for the month in regards to cumulative opponents winning percentage. That means that Denver has to take care of business and if they are able to beat teams that they are supposed to beat then they have a good chance at remaining as the top seed heading into the All-Star break.