The Nuggets’ second unit lit up the fourth quarter on a 25-5 run to beat the Raptors 121-111 on the second night of a back to back. JaMychal Green led the bench with 15 points on 6 of 9 shooting while Austin Rivers and Shaq Harrison added 11 a piece. Paul Millsap had 8 points and 7 rebounds.
“That start of the fourth quarter was exhilarating,” Michael Malone said. “For me being a defensive minded coach, that was some of the best basketball I’ve seen our group play and it all started on that end… I ran them the whole time because they deserve that opportunity with how well they were playing.”
Nikola Jokić, who scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, didn’t have to play a second in the fourth quarter due to the high level of play of the second unit. He’s averaging a career high 35 minutes per game but only played 28 minutes on Thursday night. Malone alluded to the fact that his MVP candidate is physically and mentally exhausted in Wednesday night’s press conference so getting a rest was very much needed.
“That was really important,” Malone said of resting Jokić in the fourth. “We constantly have conversations with Nikola about potentially resting knowing how tired he is not just physically but mentally as well. He’s a tough cookie. He doesn’t want to take a night off.”
Denver has now won 4 in a row and is 8-1 since Jamal Murray went down with a season ending injury. The Nuggets have also won 16 of their last 19 games, and have had the best record in the NBA over the last two months.
“Jamal Murray is one of the better young players in the entire NBA and to be 8-1 without Jamal speaks volumes about our group,” Malone said. “It speaks volumes about Nikola Jokić and why he’s the MVP, and speaks to the quality of our depth.”
Defense has been an area of focus for Malone and that’s how his team was able to take control of this game. Michael Porter, who scored a team high 23 points, had some extra motivation early on with his defense.
“As a team we just had each others backs defensively,” Porter said. “Me, personally I got scored on a couple times at the beginning of the game and I kind of took it personal, like nah they’re not about to go at me. So that’s something I’m starting to take pride in. Night in and night out I’m capable of playing defense like that.”
Porter has stepped it up on the defensive end and embraces the role of guarding the leagues’ best players. He shut down OG Anunoby in the second half holding him to just 6 points after he went off for 19 points in the first half.
“I’m trying to be a star player myself,” Porter said. “So guarding the teams best player is part of it. I don’t want to be one of those star players that hides from the other teams best players so as I grow and keep getting better I definitely welcome that challenge especially because that’s the side of the ball I need the most work on so it’s a challenge every night but I’m capable of doing it.”
Porter has unlimited potential and even his new teammate, Rivers, can see it in him despite what all the outside noise had to say about him.
“You hear this stuff about him and then I come here and he’s one of the best guys on the team,” Rivers said. “He’s just a great guy. He’s a kid. This dude, he’s innocent. He wants to learn and he has that greatness in him. Everybody sees that. He’s 6’10” with one of the best jump shots in the league and he’s just a genuine good guy.”
It was announced on Thursday morning that the Nuggets signed Rivers for the remainder of the season which definitely sparked his confidence in his game against the Raptors. As of late, he admitted to not shooting the ball well, having not played in 2 months but said Porter has been there for him.
“He’s just constantly been in my ear just giving me confidence telling me, go be you, go be aggressive especially when I was struggling shooting those past couple games,” Rivers said. “He has just been telling me to get in my bag and be comfortable and go get confident and be myself.”
Rivers has only been with the team for 6 games (winning 5), but he’s already figured out what the culture is all about: Sacrificing the me for the we and it’s something he hasn’t experienced before.
“What makes this team special is your best player is a pass first super star,” Rivers said of what he’s learned about the Nuggets. “There’s just not that many of that in the league. Maybe a couple but nobody at his level, nobody at his position. He sees everything so it starts from the top. He’s a guy that you come in and you can be shooting at a main goal and he’ll go shoot on one of those little side baskets to get a workout in. There’s no ego. I’ve never seen anything like that. Everybody just buys into team first. The ball pops. Nobody cares who has the big night.”
As a team tonight, Denver forced 15 turnovers and outscored Toronto 56-38 in the paint. This win also marked a milestone as Malone’s 300th career win as Denver Nuggets head coach.
“I wasn’t even aware,” Malone said. “I had no idea that tonight was my 300th win. I don’t get caught up in that I really don’t. I’m worried about our team, I’m worried about are we winning, I’m worried about how my players are doing physically and mentally.”
Malone went on to credit his coaching staff, the front office and the teams’ owners for allowing him to be in this position. His players had a lot to say about him as well.
“Me and coach Malone got a great relationship,” Porter said. “We’ve really grown in our communication and our trust of each other. We’re always talking outside of games and outside of practices like how we can do better as a team, what he sees and what I see. We’ve definitely grown our relationship. He’s a great coach so I’m happy for him.”
The Nuggets have nine more games left of the regular season, playing 7 of those games on the road. This is also going to be one of their toughest stretches of games as they’re set to play the Clippers, Lakers, Knicks, Jazz and Nets, all top teams in the NBA but Malone isn’t worried.
“I think our team has proven time and time again that we can play with anybody and we can beat anybody and we have,” Malone said of his team coming up on a tough schedule. “It has been tough all season long through injuries, through the COVID protocols. We continue to find a way.”
Denver still sits at fourth in the Western Conference standings with a 42-21 record.