Nuggets ride strong third quarter to get close win over the Detroit Pistons

Jan 23, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers (25) controls the ball as Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart (28) guards in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets closed out their six-game home stand with a 117-111 win over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday. Denver closed the third quarter with an 11-1 run and held Detroit to just 30% shooting from the field. It wasn’t a pretty ending but Nikola Jokic hit some clutch buckets down the stretch to capture the win.

“Anybody would love to coach an MVP and a guy who has proven to be the most clutch player in the league the last few years,” head coach Michael Malone said. “When things are tight, you know you can go to your best player and he’s going to score, he’s going to get fouled or he’s going to swing the ball and give you a wide open three. I thought Austin Rivers had a really good game tonight. He hit a big 3 in the corner right in front of our bench so yes that’s the luxury in having a player like Nikola.”

Jokic finished with 34 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. He came into this game with four straight triple-doubles but fell short of hitting the mark again. Will Barton added 14 points, Aaron Gordon had 13 and Bryn Forbes and Zeke Nnaji had 12 each off the bench.

Denver’s bench has been a problem as of late but it finally showed up and scored 41 points and outscored Detroit’s bench 20-3 in the third quarter.

“It was great to see because to be honest it hasn’t been something we’ve been able to count on every night,” Malone said. “The fact that we had Facu [Campazzo], and Bryn and Zeke, I thought Zeke played really well, DeMarcus [Cousins] and one of the starters in there or even [Davon Reed], those guys, that’s what they need to do… That group has to be gritty, dirty, nasty, get stops, play with pace and get out and run and I think we had examples of that but we just didn’t do it long enough.”

Cousins debuted in his first game with the Nuggets on Sunday night after signing a 10-day contract with them. He most recently played with the Milwaukee Bucks for 17 games but was later waived. He only put up two points on 1-7 from the field against Detroit but had six rebounds and a couple key stops on the defensive end.

“I think it was special for us because we know each other but I also know what he’s been through,” Malone said. “This guy, after playing really well in Milwaukee, he was just sitting at home waiting for his phone to ring. That’s crazy. I don’t know if people are scared of him or what but I’m not scared of him. I love him. And he went in and played good basketball tonight and he’s only going to get better as he gets more and more comfortable and shakes that rust off so I was happy for DeMarcus to be back playing an NBA game which is where he needs to be.”

Malone coached Cousins during his 2013-14 season with the Sacramento Kings and they’ve stayed in touch ever since. Cousins told media that he’s extremely grateful for the opportunity to be back alongside his former coach and reminisced about the past.

“It’s crazy because yesterday was my first practice officially and I was seeing how Mike goes about his day and I was like damn Mike you kind of lost it,” Cousins said. “I’m used to the Mike with the vein popping out the side of his head, freaking out on the sideline. I’m like man he has changed so much over the years and it just shows everybody grows with experience and everybody grows with time and I’m happy to see him in such a good place now coming from where we came from. I’m extremely excited to be back on the bench with him.”

The four-time NBA All-Star was brought to Denver for his inside presence and to provide a veteran leadership for some of the younger players on the team. He fully embraces whatever role the Nuggets have in mind for him.

“He has already helped,” Rivers said. “I’ve seen him grab some young players to the side and try to talk to them. He’s another guy who has been through it all. It has been to the highest of the highest to the lowest of the lows… he has been through everything so he’s not a bad guy to listen to and you know he knows his stuff. When he was at that level you just don’t get that way not knowing the game and being smart. And he gives us grit. He’s a tough dude. Everybody knows Boogie. We don’t play with him. He’s an enforcer, he can hoop.”

After not being in the rotation for Friday’s game and not playing in the second half of the game prior, Malone finally put Rivers back into the rotation after a long conversation they had after practice.

“He just wanted to communicate with me to talk about what he can do to help me,” River said. “What I’m looking for in terms of my contributions… I feel great now and I told coach after the past couple of games that I know I can help this team win games. I did last year. I’ve done it for many teams before. I’m 29. I’m young. I feel great. I’m in my prime. I know I can be better than what I’ve played, too.”

The Nuggets turned on the jets in third quarter and went on a 10-4 run to start. It was an all-around effort with Jokic, Forbes, Campazzo and Nnaji all scoring five points each. Denver shot 52% from the field in the quarter and 46% from long range while holding Detroit to just 30% from the field and 17% from beyond the arc. The Nuggets closed out the quarter on an 11-1 run with the last two possessions being a steal from Cousins for a Nnaji dunk and Campazzo on the fast break through two defenders to take a 92-76 lead at the buzzer.

Detroit opened the fourth quarter on 9-0 run to get to within four points. Trey Lyles was having his way in the paint and scored eight of his 18 points off the bench for the Pistons. The Nuggets still had the 100-92 lead with 6:10 left. Then with just under two minutes to go, Detroit came climbing back and Cory Joseph scored a basket to tie it up at 109. Jokic scored 11 in the quarter, six of those coming within the last two minutes of the game. The Pistons had three costly possessions that ultimately costed them the game. Joseph had a turnover that led to a pair of Jokic free throws and was also called for an offensive foul upon knocking down a 3-pointer. And then Saddiq Bey stepped out of bounds and turned it over leading to another pair of free throws. The Nuggets closed it out on a 6-0 run to win it 117-111.

The Nuggets won four of their six games at home and now hit the road for six straight games starting in Detroit where they’ll face the Pistons again. Denver still sits in sixth place in the Western Conference standings with a 24-21 record.

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