PORTLAND, Ore. — Nikola Jokic exploded for 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists, and the Denver Nuggets notched a key 102-85 victory against the Trail Blazers Friday night.
Here are eight takeaways from the contest:
1. Welcome, Wilson. Coach Michael Malone deliberately deployed a bigger starting lineup — Jokic at power forward alongside Mason Plumlee at center — to exploit Jokic’s matchup against Al-Farouq Aminu. But that game plan also trickled down to Wilson Chandler, took initially advantage of being guarded by Jake Layman (who started in place of Damian Lillard) and rode that to a season-high 21 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Chandler’s season — one in which he’s moved into the starting lineup and played both forward spots — has been perplexing, to say the least. But, as Malone said, “a very aggressive Wilson Chandler is an effective Wilson Chandler.” By my count, he fought through contact for three and-1 finishes (and also made the free throw).
2. Plumlee bounces back. The last time the Nuggets visited Portland, Plumlee played just six minutes (none after the first quarter) and did not score, pull down a rebound or dish out an assist. His one mark on the stat line? One turnover. But the former Blazer bounced back nicely Friday, finishing with eight points, five rebounds, three assists and a season-high five blocks. He’s also recorded multiple blocks in five of his last eight games, tangible evidence of his role as the current anchor of Denver’s defense.
“Tonight, he was just himself,” Malone said of Plumlee. “He didn’t try to do anything he’s not capable of doing … I think he’s been terrific.”
Added Plumlee: “It’s easier with this team, because I know everything they’re gonna do before they do it.”
3. Rotation, rotation. Malone’s eye’s grew wide when he glanced at the stat sheet and noticed Chandler had played almost 42 minutes.
“Wow, what am I doing?” Malone said.
The coach has continued to roll out an eight-man rotation, particularly with backup point guard Emmanuel Mudiay still sidelined with a sprained ankle. Forward Kenneth Faried did not see the floor for the third consecutive game, remaining on the bench even when Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez entered during garbage time. Malone knows he will have to dip more into his bench more Saturday at Golden State, the second night of a back-to-back set and Denver’s third game in four nights. But the coach stressed the importance of staying in the moment during Friday’s contest.
“Just kind of going with the group that I think is going to give us the best chance to win,” Malone said “… My whole mindset tonight was I’m not worried about Golden State. This is the one that we have to have. Let’s go get it.”
4. Glass half full. Denver totaled just two fastbreak points against the Trail Blazers. But that’s actually a positive number, because it speaks to the effectiveness of a Nuggets’ half-court offense that finished with a 64-46 edge in points in the paint. Malone highlighted his players’ aggressiveness and crisp screens.
“We’re gonna have to able to win these types of games,” Malone said. “When you don’t have 20 fastbreak points, can you execute and can you generate the shot that you want?
5. More stats. After coughing up 22 turnovers in Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota, the Nuggets totaled 14 for 10 points Friday. They also blasted the Trail Blazers 49-34 on the boards and held a 22-8 advantage in second-chance points.
6. Closing strong. After letting two double-digit second-half leads slip away against divisional opponents earlier this week, the Nuggets built a comfortable cushion and then extended it after Portland’s mini spurt to get within 10 points early in the fourth quarter. That gave Denver its first road win over a divisional opponent and pushed its record against the Northwest to 2-5. And now, the Nuggets are done with road games at Portland and Utah. Denver also moved back up to sixth place in the Western Conference. The Nuggets have the same record as Oklahoma City (17-15), but the Thunder holds the tiebreaker.
“It gives you confidence when you know you can go on the road against a very tough team in a tough environment,” Malone said.
7. Millsap progressing. All-star power forward Paul Millsap, who is currently recovering from wrist surgery, went through conditioning and (one-handed) shooting work during shootaround and pregame warm-ups Friday. He still has a hard cast on his hand and arm, which means he still can’t crack the cap of a bottled water. Malone said recently that the earliest he expects Millsap to return to full health is the all-star break in mid-February.
Malone on Jokic’s first-half driving dunk: “You should stop the game when that happens. If it’s a home game, everybody should get a free hot dog.”
Jokic on Denver’s last win in Portland in 2013: “I was back home (in Serbia) driving horses, so I don’t remember that very well. But I’m really glad we ended that losing streak.”