Good, bad and ugly: Nuggets head into 2019 as the first seed in the West

Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) shoots over Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Dec 29, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) shoots over Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets have been a resilient bunch to start the season. They have been tested in many ways and are still heading into the New Year with the first seed in the Western Conference.

The injury bug has hit hard and early as the Nuggets went into their game on Saturday night down five players. Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley both were also on the the injury report after giving their all in a courageous win over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday that resulted in both players spraining an ankle. But heading into Saturday’s game, there were great signs of things to come. Murray, even after spraining his ankle, managed to hit a career-high nine 3-pointers on the night. Beasley also played despite spraining his ankle and had a first-half offensive explosion with 15 points on five made 3-pointers. The biggest surprise of the day was the return of Paul Millsap who has been out for just over three weeks.

Denver managed to scrape together a 122-118 victory over the Phoenix Suns on the road for their second-straight win. With that being said, here is the good, bad and ugly after a big win over Phoenix.

The Good – Paul Millsap Returns

The Nuggets won their 23rd game of the season, but the story of the game was the return of Millsap.

Millsap made his return after missing the last eight games due to a fractured big toe on his right foot. He only played 14 minutes in his return, but his presence as a captain was felt from start to finish. Last year, when Millsap missed 44 games after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist, head coach Michael Malone decided to bring the four-time All-Star off of the bench to ease him back into the rotation. Malone did the same thing in Saturday’s game against the Suns.

Millsap did not have to do much as Denver is easing him back into action. In Millsap’s 14 minutes, he finished with six points, a block and an assist. Regardless, it was great to have the veteran back in the rotation and off of the injury report. It is only a matter of time until Millsap is back to his usual allotment of minutes and being the defensive anchor that the Nuggets need.

The Bad – Struggles closing the first half

It is understandable to have a sloppy game on the second night of a back-to-back and the third game in four nights; especially with so many players injured or hobbled for the Nuggets. Fatigue definitely played its part, but the way that Denver closed out the first half after being up as much as 25 points is just not acceptable.

There should be no excuse for the team with the best record in the Western Conference. Denver started the game off strong and applied pressure early, but they have to show up and close out games against teams they are better than without letting them go on a big run.

Deandre Ayton was the highest scorer on the Suns as he finished with 33 points on the night, but he did most of his damage in the second quarter as he racked up 24 point on 12-13 shooting as he carried Phoenix back into the game.

If Denver wants to remain as one of the elite teams in the NBA, they must get better at closing out quarters.

The Ugly – Road games ahead

Looking forward for Denver, it is going to be interesting to see which team shows up as there has been a bit of inconsistency away from the Pepsi Center. Denver is now 14-3 at home, but 9-8 on the road to start the year and are now looking at a stretch where they play 10 of their next 17 games on the road.

Denver snapped a four-game losing streak on the road with their nail-biting finish over Phoenix on Saturday, but the game really should not have been that close.

The positive thing is, starting with Saturday’s game against Phoenix and ending on January 30th against the New Orleans Pelicans, 10 of Denver’s 17 games will be against sub-.500 teams.

How Denver plays over the next couple of weeks will be a great indicator as to what type of team the Nuggets truly are. Road wins are crucial and they will have to play better than they did against the Suns if they want to stay atop the Western conference.