When the Denver Nuggets needed a spark in the second quarter in their matchup versus the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night at Pepsi Center, they turned to a bench lineup that has had mixed success throughout their first 11 games. Denver’s second-unit has been hit or miss but behind a strong stint from Emmanuel Mudiay and Mason Plumlee right before halftime, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 29-25 in the frame and were able to keep themselves within striking distance until the fourth.
Their impact was felt again in the fourth on back-to-back possessions. A Plumlee block at the 8:29 mark of the quarter and then a Mudiay three on Denver’s next possession gave the Nuggets a three-point lead with eight minutes to go. Denver never trailed again and went on to win 102-94 on the back of their 21-year-old backup point guard.
Mudiay finished with a team-high 21 points on 8-10 shooting. He didn’t miss until the 1:25 mark of the fourth quarter.
“Emmanuel was the MVP tonight,” Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone said. “He was phenomenal.”
“I saw an aggressive young man who believed in himself ” Malone continued about his point guard. “I saw a guy who goes 8-10 from the field, 4-4 from the three-point line, 21 points. And what I liked about our team tonight, we were up in that fourth quarter, we didn’t play not to lose.”
Mudiay and Plumlee’s second-quarter run added some much-needed juice to the Nuggets’ attack. The duo combined for 22 of Denver’s first-half points and Mudiay, after subbing in for starter Jamal Murray at the 5:48 mark of the first quarter, played out the rest of the half.
Plumlee was also fantastic for Denver over the first two quarters. The 27-year-old, who the Nuggets signed to a lucrative three-year $41 million contract this summer as insurance for starter Nikola Jokic came through when Denver needed him. With Jokic picking up three first-half fouls, one of which came on a questionable charge call, Plumlee stepped in and finished the half with 11 points and two rebounds in 13 minutes.
A notable exclusion from tonight’s first half was Kenneth Faried. Who didn’t log any first or second quarter minutes despite the Thunder going small at times with a Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson frontcourt. Faried’s usual minutes, which come at the beginning of the second quarter alongside Jokic went to Plumlee and the center probably deserved them.
Denver and Oklahoma City were all square heading to the fourth as the Nuggets and Thunder put together essentially symmetrical third quarters. Both teams shot roughly 44 percent from the field and committed three turnovers apiece. Denver then pushed the margin to six at the 1:23 mark of the fourth and never looked back.
Down the stretch, it was again Mudiay. Tonight’s win was the Nuggets’ biggest victory of the season and arguably one of the most notable wins of the Michael Malone era.
“Real big,” Will Barton said of Mudiay’s impact. “He was just aggressive like I said he was aggressive, confident, he came out there and played well.”
“It’s not just this game I think he’s playing really good from the beginning of the season, ” Jokic said of Mudiay. “We didn’t play good as a team so it’s not his fault but he’s always bringing energy from the bench. He knows what he’s supposed to do and he’s going to do it every night.”
Denver held Oklahoma City to just 42 percent shooting and forced the Thunder into 16 turnovers.
“It was a big win, it definitely was a big win,” Barton said. “I just felt like last game this was a game we would have lost, a nailbiter coming down to the end. I just felt like we dropped a lot of those games last year and this year, there’s a different vibe, there’s a different energy and I dont feel like we’re going to lose those type of games right now and that’s a good feeling to have.”