San Diego – Sunday, September 30th was supposed to be LeBron James’ day.
It was James’ first game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Valley View Casino Center was bursting at the seams with nervous energy. The fans were hanging over the railing of the Lakers tunnel for hours before the game just hoping to catch just a glimpse of James. He never actually came out to warmup prior to the game, but that did not change the intense excitement in the arena. All eyes were waiting for the self-proclaimed “King” to appear.
Once he did, the eruption of the crowd was deafening. Even amongst all of the chaos, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone acted as a stoic and focused leader for Denver. The world was watching for James’ debut as a member of the Lakers, and Malone understood that, but this game had nothing to do with Los Angeles according to Malone.
“Whenever you get a chance to play against a player like LeBron it is a great challenge, but we have not talked about the Lakers in any way, shape or form,” Malone explained prior to tip off. “This is all about Denver.”
The Nuggets embodied Malone’s message from the second that the game began. They did not let the intensity of the circumstances bother them in anyway. Denver came out and executed at a high level, fought for 48 minutes, and they did what Malone wanted them to do; just worry about themselves and play their game.
In the first quarter, it was the Nikola Jokic experience as he effortlessly accumulated 12 points in eight minutes and got to the free-throw line at will. He hit all six of his shots from the charity stripe and calmed the fans that were going crazy. From there, Denver kept their foot on the gas and acted as the aggressor. They finished their first quarter of the 2018-19 season with a 34-29 lead over the LeBron-led Lakers.
The Nuggets bench unit picked up right where the starters left off. A five-man group of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, and Mason Plumlee not only held their own, but extended Denver’s lead in a big way and that was largely thanks to Hernangomez’s hot shooting and stellar defense.
Once the bench got hot, the rest of the roster followed suit. Jamal Murray caught fire and ended up with 16 points on 10 shots, Jokic had 16 points on five shots, and Hernangomez had 11 points on six shots. Denver went into halftime leading 66-54 over the Lakers. They were shooting the lights out of the gym as a team. They hit an even 50 percent of their shots as well as 42.1 percent from three-point distance. As a cherry on the top, Denver also got to the free-throw line 16 times and made 14 of them.
Denver started the second half much sloppier and without the same level of execution. JaVale McGee had a couple big dunks and Malone called a timeout just 1:19 into the third quarter. He wanted to try to get his starters back on track and was imploring them to wake up, but to no avail. The Nuggets lead evaporated and a close game emerged.
As the starters night came to a close, the bench got their time to shine, and they took full advantage. Trey Lyles, Monte Morris, Mason Plumlee, and Malik Beasley all had strong games, but it was Hernangomez who stood out to most. He was back to launching threes with ease, defending with tenacity and aggression, moving the ball quickly and making even quicker decisions, and crashing the boards with fervor. Hernangomez finished the game with 19 points, five rebounds, one assist, and three blocks to go with five made three-pointers. He finished the night as a +29 in 23 minutes.
That intensity bled into the rest of the bench unit. The starters were removed from the game for good and it was up to the reserves to carry the Nuggets to a win in their first preseason game of the year. They accepted the challenge and proceeded to run the Lakers out of San Diego and eventually won by a score of 124-107.
Monte Morris flawlessly led the Nuggets with 12 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Everything Morris did contributed to winning basketball which is shown in his +30 in 25 minutes of action. His pick and roll partner Mason Plumlee also had a very strong showing in which he hit all five of his free throws and added 11 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and one steal in 18 minutes. The theme of the Nuggets reserves playing well continues with Lyles who had 14 points on nine shots while adding seven rebounds and four assists to the mix.
While there is usually not much to take away from the first preseason game of the year, it is hard not to be excited about the Nuggets upcoming season. The only real negative of the night is that they had far too many turnovers, but sloppiness is expected this early in the season. Overall, it is hard to picture a better note to start the season on.
Next, the Nuggets head to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers once again, but this time the game will be at STAPLES Center on Tuesday, October 2nd. The game is on TNT and is at 7:30 PST.