The short-handed Denver Nuggets (13-9) pieced together their lineup, then finished strong in a 115-100 victory Saturday night against the Los Angeles Lakers before a six-game road trip.
Here are eight additional observations from the victory:
1. Mason the playmaker. Nuggets coach Michael Malone said prior to the game that he felt comfortable running large chunks of the offense through Plumlee in the high post, much like they would do with injured star Nikola Jokic. Plumlee delivered in his first start of the season, tying a season high with six assists to go with 12 points, six rebounds and a team-high plus/minus rating of plus-28. Plumlee noted the Lakers packed the paint and constantly switched on defense, freeing up teammates to receive kick-out passes on the perimeter or to cut backdoor. In all, Plumlee’s performance was the latest example of a Denver big man taking advantage of increased minutes while that position group has been hit hard by injuries in recent weeks.
“He is a complete basketball player,” said Malone, also praising Plumlee’s defense down the stretch.
2. Advantage, Murray. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray put together his latest home gem, posting a game-high 28 points (including five 3-pointers), four rebounds and four assists. Malone noticed Murray relax when his first shot went in less than two minutes into the game. But the coach was perhaps most impressed with how Murray guarded Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, who notched a triple-double against the Nuggets in their first meeting. Ball finished Saturday with nine points, nine rebounds, five assists and five turnovers.
“Jamal, right now, gets great energy when he’s making shots,” Malone said. “He’s got to have that same energy whether he’s making shots or not, and that’s gonna be the biggest thing for him as he matures as a player.”
3. Late “Thrill.” One game after scoring a career-high 37 points — including the game-winning layup — against the Bulls, Will Barton struggled mightily on offense until scoring 13 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter. Barton said he was getting the shots he wanted, but they simply weren’t falling. He was also called for carrying three times, which surprised him.
“I (told the official), ‘C’mon man. Even if I am carrying, I haven’t been called for that all year. You’re gonna call three on me in one game?’” Barton said. “But there’s gonna be nights like that — calls not going your way, you ain’t making shots. That shows true character.”
Added Malone: “Will is a big moment-type player. And I think he stepped up in the big moment tonight.”
4. Key stats. The Nuggets won Saturday night despite getting outrebounded 52-39, just their second win in their last 17 contests when there has been that type of discrepancy on the boards. Denver, however, won the points in the paint battle 56-52 after trailing by a huge 38-18 margin at halftime. The Nuggets also scored 28 points off of the Lakers’ 21 turnovers, while committing 12 turnovers Los Angeles turned into 21 points.
5. Big men, big performances. Plumlee’s all-around game was a highlight, given the teammate he replaced in the starting lineup. But Kenneth Faried scored 12 of his 13 points in the third quarter — a stretch when the game nearly got away from Denver — and added nine rebounds. Trey Lyles, meanwhile, totaled a season-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting off the bench.
6. Spin cycle. The game’s most jaw-dropping moment came in the third quarter, when Gary Harris went airborne in the lane, completely spun around and then converted the layup.
“I was happy I made it,” Harris said, “because Coach would have been mad if I missed.”
This shot naturally became a popular topic with teammates in the locker room, and led to this funny exchange between Murray and Harris. After saying the play left him “speechless,” Murray hollered to Harris on the opposite side of the locker room “I was open, by the way!” Harris’ response? “My bad.”
7. Friends forever. Richard Jefferson played 14 minutes Saturday against the team coached by his college teammate and close friend, Luke Walton. Walton said Jefferson tries to “get his jabs in there whenever he can,” even in the middle of the game. But Walton’s tone turned sincere when asked about the impact Jefferson can have on the Nuggets.
“I know he takes pride in trying to mentor young players,” Walton said. “He really enjoys that part of it. It was a smart move for the Nuggets to pick him up and let him help.”
8. A win’s a win. On paper, two home victories against the sub-.500 Bulls and Lakers is not much for the Nuggets to brag about. But Barton stressed the circumstances made these wins important — and that they’ll come in handy if Denver is still chasing a playoff spot down the stretch.
“These wins are gonna count when we need them to,” Barton said. “You don’t want to look back at the end of the year, like we did last year, and say, ‘Man, if we would have got this win here. If we would have got this win there.’ It cost us. Now we’re getting those wins … I think the last two games we just won are games we would have lost last year, for sure.”