Starting five: Nuggets escape with win versus San Antonio

Denver Nuggets forward Juan Hernangomez (41) celebrates the win over the San Antonio Spurs at the Pepsi Center.
Dec 28, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Juan Hernangomez (41) celebrates the win over the San Antonio Spurs at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets capped off another improbable victory Friday night with a 102-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

It was not that the win was an upset for Denver — considering they came into the game sitting at first place in the West — but it was improbable considering how the game developed. With Nikola Jokic and Torrey Craig fouling out in the final minutes of the game, coupled with the injuries to Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley, it was a great win for Denver.

Denver’s record now sits at 22-11 with the win, which places them a half game ahead of the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder for first place in the Western Conference. It was also the Nuggets eighth-straight win at home and moves their record at Pepsi Center to 14-3 on the season, which is one of the best marks in the West.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into the five takeaways from the Nuggets big victory over San Antonio.

The Nuggets second unit continues to be a huge strength  

Its becoming a nightly occurrence in these five takeaways, but it is hard to not notice how well the Nuggets bench unit is performing night in and night out. While the Nuggets still battle injuries, normal second unit guys like Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, and Mason Plumlee have been slotted into the starting lineup and are performing well in the process. What that has left is Monte Morris and Malik Beasley shouldering the load for the second unit, which they have done incredibly well.

Lets start with Morris, whose second in the league in assist to turnover ratio (5.7) and was at it again Friday night with another night of tremendous play on both ends of the floor. It all started in the first half for Morris as he finished with an efficient three points and six assists in his nine minutes of action. Morris would only build on that in the second half as he finished the game with seven points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field to go along with his seven assists and one turnover. Even though he did not have the best shooting numbers, Morris hit two big free-throws in the closing seconds of the game to help seal the win for Denver.

Now we get to Beasley, who followed up a career high 22-point performance on Wednesday night with another big game on Friday. For Beasley, his night started in the first half after he finished an insane alley-oop dunk off a perfect pass from Morris.

That dunk set the tone for Beasley’s night as he finished the game with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field to go along with his three rebounds. Beasley’s night was cut short because of a left ankle injury, but he still made the most of 25 minutes off the bench and continues to be one of the biggest surprises for the Nuggets this season.

The growth Beasley has played with off the bench has been huge in the success of the second unit and that only continued with his big performance against the Spurs on Friday night. Beasley’s play of late is something the Nuggets desperately needed with all of their injury problems. Hopefully, Beasley will return to action sooner rather than later.

Nikola Jokic leads the charge for Denver’s offensive 

After a rough performance on Wednesday night in San Antonio — four points, 10 assists, and four rebounds — Jokic had a great night and was the biggest reason why the Nuggets offense had so much success. From the opening tip you could tell Jokic was in attack mode as he did a great job not just looking for his shot, but setting up his teammates as well. Jokic ended up pouring in 13 first half points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, while also chipping in four assists and four rebounds to put him on triple-double watch going into the second half.

The big first half by Jokic was just the beginning as he ultimately finished with night just shy of a triple-double with 21 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists. Jokic also shot an extremely effective 10-of-14 from the field.

As a team, the Nuggets finished the game shooting 39-of-85 from the field and 10-of-29 from the three-point line while also putting up 29 assists. The Nuggets success from the field and from 3-point distance is the biggest reason why they walked away victorious on Friday night. Jokic was the main reason why.

Mason Plumlee continues to prove his worth in the starting lineup 

With how many injuries that have occurred this season, the Nuggets have needed players to step up. Plumlee has been one of those players and it is not because of his play, which has been fantastic all season. It has been because of what he is doing next to Jokic in the starting lineup.

When you put Plumlee on the floor with Jokic, it gives the Nuggets two playmaking bigs that make everyone around them better. Plumlee certainly brought that to life in the opening minutes of the game as he began his night with four rebounds and three assists in the games first six minutes. They were not just normal rebounds though as Plumlee was a terror on the offensive glass. He provided the Nuggets with a number of second chance points opportunities and helped Denver finish the game with 15 second-chance points. Plumlee’s seven offensive rebounds were a major contributor to that number.

Between the defensive numbers and what he has provided the Nuggets offense, Plumlee continues to have an incredible season for the Nuggets. A lot of that success has come with the second unit, but what Plumlee has done with the starting unit has also been fantastic in the past couple weeks.

Jamal Murray bounces back in a big way

Coming into tonight, Murray was shooting just 28.5 percent from distance and was coming off a game where he shot 4-of-19 from the field, 1-of-8 from 3-point range.

All that meant was that Murray was bound to get out of his slump sooner rather than later, which is exactly what he did against the Spurs.

It all started with a big first half for Murray as he had a game-high 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field after his 18 first-half minutes. The greatest part of Murray’s opening half was not just his field goal shooting numbers, but the performance he put up from three-point land. After two quarters, Murray was 4-of-6 from three and really started to find his rhythm with his outside shot.

That was the start Murray needed as he finished the night with 31 points on 13-of-27 shooting from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range.

Murray’s 10 second-half points were key in the Nuggets walking away with a victory, but they were just a small part of the story. After falling to the court and apparently spraining his ankle or knee, Murray stayed on the floor for a good 30 seconds in what seemed to be a lot of pain. It would take a lot more than a leg injury to keep Murray out of the game though as he popped right up and finished the game out.

Murray playing through injury speaks a lot to his toughness and his willingness to help see the Nuggets to victory. Even though the game was still close, Murray could have easily came out and rested with the Nuggets having another game in 24 hours, but he did not. Murray battled through the pain and was a big reason why the Nuggets won, especially with what they had to overcome in the fourth quarter. With three normal starters out and Jokic and Craig fouling out in the closing minutes of the game, having Murray on the floor was crucial in Denver picking up a win over San Antonio.

A rough third quarter almost dooms the Nuggets chances off walking away victorious 

The third quarter certainly was not pretty for the Nuggets as they almost let it doom them.

After taking a 14-point lead into the second half, that lead fell all the way down to three points after the third quarter ended. That is because the Spurs outscored Denver 28-17 in the third quarter as Denver kept allowing San Antonio back into the game with a lack of offensive efficiency and turnovers.

Denver’s biggest problem in the third quarter was their turnovers as they finished the night with 21 turnovers that led to 16 points for the Spurs. The Nuggets also struggled to score the ball in the third as they often looked frustrated offensively as they showed no where near the offensive output we saw from Denver in the first half. It was not till Jokic and Murray hit a couple big shots that the Nuggets offense finally got going again, which was a big reason why they took a lead into the final quarter.

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