The Denver Nuggets took an 11-point lead in the first quarter and never looked back. They were firing on all cylinders and blew out the Washington Wizards 127-109. Nikola Jokic put up a casual 29 points on 10 of 14 shooting, 13 rebounds and eight assists in just 26 minutes
The Nuggets have now won seven games in a row on the road and six of their last eight games overall. Most teams play better at home than on the road but that’s not the case for the Nuggets this year. They’re 20-13 at home and 22-15 on the road. Head coach Michael Malone has some insight as to why.
“I think on the road you have that just us mentality, us against the world in another teams building,” Malone said. “No distractions, whatever it might be and I just hope we can continue to do it because if you want to be a team that’s dangerous in the post season, yes you have to protect your home court but you also have to have the ability to go on the road and win some tough games.”
Austin Rivers blames it on the altitude in Denver and said he can notice a difference at Ball Arena after coming back from a road trip.
“The altitude,” Rivers said. “Playing at home is different… When we come back from our road trip it affects us just like anybody else. You’re out there for the first five minutes and you’re just searching for air. That might be a reason why I don’t know.”
Regardless, the Nuggets have had a pretty impressive season. This is the time of year when teams start to really get a feel for their identity and who they are on both ends of the floor. For Denver, everyone has bought into his role and are playing selfless basketball.
“We’re starting to form,” Rivers said. “Perfect timing. It’s tough early in the season because there’s so many guys in and out. This guy wasn’t playing and this guy wasn’t playing. Bones wasn’t playing and then I wasn’t playing. Every single person had a stint this season where they were in and out so it takes time to find the right unit that gels so we definitely I think found one.”
Denver’s bench put up 59 points against the Wizards on Wednesday night with Bones Hyland leading the way with 17 points. The rookie came off of a dominant 21-point performance on Monday against the Philadelphia 76ers and has made a played a huge role in the camaraderie of the second unit.
“Bones has a big heart,” Rivers said. “One thing I love about him is that he just goes for it… he just goes for it continually so that’s a guy that you just let him go out there and he always means well. He tries to make the right play.”
Playing the right way is something the Nuggets take great pride in and they showed that against Washington with their 30 assists to just nine turnovers. They shot 41% from beyond the arc while holding the Wizards to just 21% from long range. They outscored them 39-24 in the second quarter and crushed them in the paint 20-10.
Their inside presence is a nightmare for opponents due in large part to the signing of DeMarcus Cousins, which was another brilliant move by the Nuggets organization. Alongside JaMychal Green, the two have given that second unit a different level of toughness and intimidation. Rivers compared them both to the Bash Bros from the Mighty Ducks because they’re agitators that know how to get the people going.
“I can’t say exactly what they’re saying because I don’t have a censor thing on the mic but they definitely like to rile some guys up, [even the] refs,” Rivers said. “They scare people sometimes. They intimidate people out there. It’s funny man. J-Mike is a great guy so is DeMarcus man. They’re just emotional but in a good way. They channel it the right way.”
Even in moments when the second unit is down or struggling, those two bring the boost that’s needed to get them back into the game.
“I think they get guys kind of charged up,” Rivers said. “Especially if our energy is flat. One of them will come to the huddle and start barking a little bit and you need to be able to take that and go out there and wake up and play. Last game was the best example of that. They kind of got the whole unit riled up and we went out there and did what we did so they’ve been great of us.”
Jokic started experiencing some lower back tightness late in the game so Malone sat him for the entire fourth quarter and the bench unit was able to hold things down to win it. This is exactly what Jokic has needed, a solid second unit that can help close out games.
The Nuggets are 42-28 on the season and face the Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland on Friday night before heading back home to play four in a row at Ball Arena. Denver has 12 games left of the regular season before the playoffs and are still hanging onto that No. 6 spot in the Western Conference standings. The Minnesota Timberwolves are just 1.5 games behind but have a tough schedule ahead.