DENVER - The Denver Nuggets entered their matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers looking to build on consecutive wins on a back-to-back and carry a three-game winning streak into arguably their most important stretch of the season. The Nuggets were on the gas from start to finish, sans one-third quarter run from the Lakers, and won easily 129-101.
The first quarter was headlined by a decision by Michael Malone made before tip-off. It was apparent from the start that starting Mason Plumlee alongside Nikola Jokic was going to be an experiment to some degree. The new starting lineup struggled to keep pace with a Lakers team that was purposely playing their young talent to gauge their play for the rest of the season, also known as tanking. Overall Denver was able to hold a lead and once Plumlee was replaced Jokic was able to score back-to-back buckets.
Denver was able to do just enough to hold a lead heading into the second quarter thanks to back to back bailout three-pointers and an isolated pull-up jump shot from Will Barton at the end of the first quarter. To end the first period Denver outscored Los Angeles 12-3 and carried a lead of 35-23 into the second quarter.
The second quarter started out as awful as possible for the Nuggets. Denver gave up three-straight turnovers that turned into two easy dunks for Corey Brewer in succession and the offense turned stale. The lead fell to just eight and the momentum had left Denver almost completely.
Malone countered the stale offense that Denver was playing with by bringing back in Jokic to settle down the offense and the Nuggets proceeded to go on a 23-6 run that extended Denver's lead from eight points to 25 points in just 5:35 of game time. Luke Walton responded with getting a technical foul and removing all five players that were on the court for that stretch and inserting Metta World Peace for some court time in the first half.
To see the Nuggets, who are notorious for playing down to the level of their opponent, come out against the Lakers in a must-win game and stomp their foot down on the throttle was a beautiful sight. Thanks to Barton's 19 first-half points and Denver holding the Lakers to just 36 percent shooting from the field in the first half, Denver went into halftime up 67-43.
"It was another solid defensive effort...," Malone said. "Overall. I thought that it was a very good defensive effort for our guys."
To start the third quarter, Denver extended their lead to 32 points at one point and were demolishing the Lakers in every facet. Gallinari was whipping passes to Plumlee for dunks while Jokic continued to score from everywhere on the floor. The Nuggets defensive energy remained high but the Lakers finally found some rhythm offensively and were able to cut Denver's lead down to 17 points as the third quarter ended with a score of 93-76.
The start of the fourth quarter was Denver punching back after the Lakers made it a 17 points game by coming out of the break with an 11-0 run highlighted by an epic alley-oop finish from Plumlee. The rest of the fourth quarter was a showcase for young players as both teams emptied their respective benches. Denver went on to win their third-straight game before heading into the most important five-game stretch of the season. Barton led Denver with 22 points and six assists while Jokic added 18 points, nine rebounds, and four assists of his own.
"Will Barton is a very important piece and we all know that. Since the break he just hadn't found his groove. Tonight, to see him shoot the ball as well as he did from three and to be the playmaker he was, getting 22 points and six assists off the bench. That was fantastic," Malone said. "Hopefully this can get him going because when Will is like that off of the bench it gives us a whole other element."
"My favorite stat is the 36 assists on 45 made field goals. Everyone got in on the act. Gallo had five, Gary Harris had seven. It was just a group effort. When we defend and play like that and are so unselfish good things happen for us. We have seen that time and time again this year," Malone said. "Very proud of our guys, as you mentioned, in a game that we had to get. Tomorrow we can get some rest and try and get some guys back and we have a very talented team coming in here on Thursday."
As Denver was taking on the Los Angeles Lakers there were other games that impact the Nuggets potential playoff berth this season.
The Dallas Mavericks, who started the day two-and-a-half games from the eighth seed, lost 78-100 to the Toronto Raptors. Dallas is now three-and-a-half games outside of the final playoff spot.
The surging Minnesota Timberwolves played one of their best games of the season and beat the Washington Wizards 119-104 behind Ricky Rubio's 22 points and 19 assists while Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 13 rebounds of his own. The Timberwolves kept pace with Denver.
The Portland Trail Blazers did not play on Monday night.
Kenneth Faried remained out and Darrell Arthur sat out to rest his knee as he prepares for the remainder of the season. With Denver missing three power forwards it was Juancho Hernangomez that saw more time as a frontcourt player than usual. He posted 13 points and five rebounds of his own.
"I thought Juancho's minutes were fantastic," Malone said. "He impacted the game right away in a very positive manner."
Nelson played with a hip flexor strain and continued to start at point guard for Denver. He posted five points, four rebounds, and six assists.
Murray also broke out of his slump and posted 22 points on 8-13 shooting and 5-8 from three to go with three assists.