After a disappointing 18-point loss in Los Angeles on Sunday, the Denver Nuggets bounced back to top the Sacramento Kings 114-98. It was the fifth time this season that Denver held their opponent to under 100 points after doing so just six times last year. Here are five observations from tonight's win.
1. First quarter horror show
Denver has had a few rough quarters this season but none compare to tonight's first 12 minutes where the Nuggets shot 7-20 (35.0 percent) from the field and went just 2-9 from three-point range.
The Nuggets turned the ball over five times in the opening frame and struggled to get acclimated to a new starting lineup without both Paul Millsap (wrist) and Wilson Chandler (back). After Nikola Jokic was subbed out for his first break at the 5:06 mark of the first quarter, Denver went on a five-minute scoring drought and didn't score again until the last play of the period — a Trey Lyles driving layup at the buzzer.
Somehow Sacramento, who came into tonight's matchup with the worst scoring differential in the league by a substantial margin, played as poorly as Denver and the Nuggets were able to start the second quarter all square with the Kings at 22-all.
2. Denver's offense got rolling in the third
After a first half that was hard to stomach, the Nuggets shifted up a gear after halftime. Denver outscored Sacramento 34-23 in the third, shot 50 percent from the field and nailed seven of their 12 attempted threes in the quarter. And after a quiet first half from a raw numbers standpoint, Jokic took over on offense and scored ten points in the third.
Jokic finished with 16 points on 7-12 shooting, 14 rebounds, and three assists. He was a game-high plus-24 in 35 minutes.
Also contributing in the quarter was Gary Harris who scored seven points on a perfect 3-3 shooting. Harris finished with 20 points on 8-13 shooting. Another steady game from one of Denver's most consistent players.
After committing 11 giveaways in the first half, Denver kept their turnover column empty in the third.
The Nuggets also had three players — Jokic, Harris, and Jamal Murray, who finished with 18 points — hit double-figures in tonight's second half.
3. The Joker came to play
There was a lot of talk on tonight's broadcast about how vocal Jokic was both on the court and in Nuggets' huddles. Maybe it was a result of Jokic wanting to make up for Sunday's second-quarter ejection or the fact that he was going up against Serbian National Team teammate Bogdan Bogdanovich. But Jokic played hard and was engaged from the getgo against Sacramento.
"That's just him being himself," said lead assistant Wes Unseld Jr, who coached Denver tonight in place of Michael Malone who was serving a one-game suspension.
Jokic has to cut down on how much he complains to the refs and flops but he's playing hard this season and seems to be in a good place.
"I like this team, to be honest," Jokic said after a Nuggets' win earlier this season and those seven words might seem insignificant, but they ring true to who Jokic is.
He's not a hard guy to please. Jokic just wants to go out, play point-center and get buckets. He's doing that while playing as hard as he ever has in a Nuggets' jersey over his three seasons in Denver.
4. Air Jokic takes flight
Jokic isn't known for his hang time and he's only dunked the ball twice so far this season before today. Over his first two seasons, Jokic has only put down 34 dunks but might have saved his best for tonight.
Unofficially, this was Jokic's first tip-slam of his career. Off an Emmanuel Mudiay miss, Jokic times his jump just right and throws it down.
5. Lyles stepped up and showed out
Someone was going to need to fill the void at backup power forward with Millsap sitting this one out and Unseld Jr opted for Lyles. It proved to be the right call.
Lyles, who had drawn praise from the coaching staff for his play throughout training camp and had been a victim of a crowded Nuggets' frontcourt so far this season, was only averaging 5.6 minutes per game prior tonight but played a season-high 19 minutes.
"He puts a lot of fours at a deficit," Unseld Jr said of Lyles. "He's got mobility, a skill-set that's unique."
The 22-year-old who Denver traded for on draft night scored eight points on 3-7 shooting and nailed two jumpers from distance. Lyles also grabbed six rebounds and was a plus-14 off the Nuggets' bench.
Lyles rolled his ankle late in the fourth quarter but will continue to get rotation minutes Wednesday in Houston as long as he's healthy and Millsap remains out.