The Denver Nuggets headed into the New Year as not only the No. 1 team in the Western Conference, but are almost at full strength once again as they returned both Paul Millsap and Gary Harris to the rotation. Both are still coming off the bench while they are getting back to game speed and finding their flow, but having those two players back has paid immediate dividends to the Nuggets.
On Thursday evening, the Nuggets were on the road for another one of 16 games for the the month of January, this time against a Sacramento Kings team that battled to the very last minute as the Nuggets moved to 2-0 to start out 2019.
In the game, Jamal Murray finished with 36 points on the night, 34 of which came in the second half as Denver escaped with a 117-113 win.
I give you the good, the bad and the ugly after coach Michael Malone picks up a much-needed road victory against his former team.
The Good – A third quarter to remember
The Nuggets went into the halftime break down by 13 points. The offense was lethargic, the defense looked out of sync and Denver had no answers for the Kings’ pace.
But in the third quarter, Denver came alive.
After a sluggish first half, it was Murray that got things going as he finished with 17 of his 36 points in the third quarter alone.
Denver won the period 31-18, and bottled the Kings up in the second half on defense. After allowing 66 points in the first half, Denver focused on the defensive end of the court and limited the Kings to only 47 second-half points.
The Bad – Murray starts slow
Jamal Murray all but delivered the Nuggets their 25th win on the season, but he had a rough start to the night. Denver went into the halftime break down 53-66 was how different of a game it was for the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic went into the break without recording a single assist.
Murray struggled to get things going as the Nuggets shot 41 percent from the field and a horrific 20 percent from beyond the arc in the half. Murray’s early struggles contributed to that; his shot was off (0-4 FGs) and hit two free throws going into the break for his only points, but turned it around in the second half.
In the second half, Murray was able to get it going; finishing the game with 36 points, including an offensive eruption of 17 points scored in the third quarter to get Denver back in the game.
When Murray is aggressive and in a flow, Denver is at their best. Slow starts are going to happen, but Murray has to stay aggressive early-on if the Nuggets want to continue this magical run.
The Ugly – Buddy Hield gets loose
Sacramento was always going to push it; they came into the game with the second-fastest pace in the entire NBA.
In pregame interviews, Malone said “we never want to fuel their break.”
Buddy Hield’s gas tank was full on Thursday.
The Nuggets were high on in the 2016 NBA draft before selecting their point guard of the future in Murray. Murray versus Hield has been an interesting matchup each time the two have faced each other, and this one did not disappoint as Murray finished with 36 points – but Hield had a solid game of his own.
Hield not only finished with 29 points on an efficient 12-19 shooting from the field; he knocked down five 3-pointers and gave the Kings a real chance to win. He was aggressive early on and finished the game with back-to-back 3-pointers that got the Kings within three points and a chance to win the game.
Denver will have to find a way to limit players like Hield from getting into a zone while also gaining and maintaining a lead going forward.