[Note: Unfortunately, I couldn't get the Rapid Reaction generator working, so a regular, old-fashioned recap follows the jump.]
The Denver Nuggets came out strong, building a 19-point halftime lead, then weathered Indiana’s third quarter scoring barrage to hang on for one of their biggest wins of the season.
In facing a powerhouse with the best record in the NBA, their hopes were at least partly pinned on the fact that the Pacers were on the second night of a back-to-back, having gone into overtime against the Kings in a game that saw their starters average 40.6 minutes.
Denver took full advantage of this opportunity right out of the gate, bursting onto the court with defensive energy that was fueling forced turnovers and fast breaks.
Offensively, Wilson Chandler led the way. His 11 first quarter points, including 3-5 from the 3-point arc, opened up the floor for the Nuggets and helped them prevent Indiana from funneling them straight into Roy Hibbert. He also did an excellent job of defending Paul George, limiting him to 2 points on 1-4 shooting in the first half.
Nate Robinson picked up the scoring mantle where Chandler left off, exploding off the bench for 13 second quarter points that propelled the Nuggets to a big double-digit lead.
Kenneth Faried had one of his best starts in recent memory. He was in full-on Manimal mode from the tip-off, his energy off the charts. He was all over the glass with eight first half rebounds, and added a glorious stuff on Paul George’s late second quarter dunk attempt that helped the Nuggets extend their lead to 19 points going into the half. And notwithstanding a very rough stretch through the third quarter, he also did a respecttable job of defending David West (a point of major concern going into this game), including some late-game pestering that really got into West’s head.
Coming out of halftime, it looked as if the Nuggets were fully prepared to totally blow their big lead and allow the Pacers to come back with pathetically little resistance. Denver’s defense utterly collapsed as Indiana went on an 18-4 run in just over three minutes to cut their deficit down to five points. West was outright abusing Faried, who was at a total loss for how to stop him. The Nuggets offense also came to a screeching halt, and things were not looking good.
Midway through the third, however, Chandler found his scoring groove again, Ty Lawson – who had been quiet up to that point – started ratcheting up his aggression, and the Nuggets defense, anchored by Timofey Mozgov, started clamping down.
Mozgov had perhaps his best defensive game of the season. The official box score lists him as having two blocks (I had counted three), but that hardly does justice to the major impact he had in the paint altering shots, and countering the size of Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi as he did a great job of battling them for rebounds and defending without fouling. He gave the Pacers fits on offense as well, working his way into deep positions pretty much at will for easy dunks and layups, and getting the Pacers bigs into foul trouble.
The Nuggets have had a hard time closing out games, but they did an admirable job of stiff-arming the Pacers in the fourth quarter and preventing them from getting too close to reclaiming the lead. Lawson and J.J. Faried were picking apart Indiana’s defense with pick-and-rolls play after play, and the Pacers really never found their second win after their big early third quarter run.
All in all, this was a great win for the Nuggets, one of their best of the season, and one they badly needed as they’ll need many more like it if they are to make the playoffs.
Some other observations:
- Randy Foye’s stat line doesn’t jump off the screen, but for a player who isn’t known as an energy guy he made some great hustle plays in the fourth quarter, including one chase-down block on C.J. Watson in transition that’s Top Ten highlight worthy.
- Denver’s free throw shooting has improved to .732 from .701 last season, but it remains a concern at times. They shot only 21-37 (.568) in this game, including 12-24 from their starters. They got away with it in this game, but against the league’s elite teams they simply can’t afford to do this.
- Lance Stephenson was the one bright spot for the Pacers. He leads the league in triple-doubles, and nearly had another one with 23 points on 10-16 shooting, 10 rebounds and 7 assists. While the Nuggets held their ground through most of the game at the other positions, Stephenson pretty much had his way with Foye and Fournier throughout the game.
- The Pacers lead the league in field goal percentage allowed (.411) and 3-point percentage allowed (.331), and are third in rebounds allowed (40.4). The Nuggets tallied .482, .400 and 46 in those categories, and can pat themselves on the back for a very well-executed game.
- Matt, myself and others discussed before the game that if Brian Shaw were ever to start Mozgov, this would be the time to do it. Needless to say he went with his usual starters, and while that still seems counterintuitive on paper (Hickson guarding Hibbert alongside Faried guarding West – are you crazy?), Shaw could point to the results as evidence that he was right and we were wrong. I would still imagine, however, that in the unlikely event of a Nuggets-Pacers playoff series that Shaw’s good fortune would not hold out over very many games.
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Next up: Sunday, Jan. 26, 7 p.m. (MST) at Sacramento. Going to the game? Save money and get cheap Denver Nuggets tickets here.
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