DETROIT — Trey Lyles used the word “explosive” to describe the Denver Nuggets’ performance against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night.
He was not referring to Jamal Murray’s flashy one-handed dunk, which prompted him to stick out his tongue and stare down Reggie Jackson upon landing. Or the second-half offensive effort in which Denver more than doubled its nine-point halftime lead. Or his own perfect 7-of-7 outing from the field, resulting in 20 points as he continues to thrive with extended minutes.
Lyles was talking about the Nuggets’ defense in a 103-84 victory at Little Caesars Arena. And his teammates and coach agreed it might have been Denver’s best performance on that end of the floor so far this season.
“It was our best job of staying in coverage and doing what we said we were gonna do in the game plan,” said Mason Plumlee, who finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds while anchoring that defense in the middle. “With the exception of (Langston) Galloway coming off those screens, we really guarded the way we wanted to. And then if they scored, it was how we wanted them to score.”
The victory gives Denver the chance to finish 3-3 on a road trip played thus far without standout center Nikola Jokic, who continues to nurse a sprained left ankle. It also guarantees the Nuggets (15-12), who currently sit in fifth place in the Western Conference, will return to Denver with a winning record.
Detroit’s point total was its second-lowest of the season and the second-fewest Denver has allowed so far, surpassing the 89 given up in Orlando on Friday. The Pistons’ 34.5 field-goal percentage was the lowest by a Denver opponent this season, and the second-lowest mark Detroit (14-13) has totaled from the floor.
And the contributions came from everywhere. Wilson Chandler spearheaded the effort on leading scorer Tobias Harris, who finished with a season-low two points on 0-of-7 shooting. Plumlee helped limit dangerous big man Andre Drummond to just four field-goal attempts and five points. A Pistons team that entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the NBA in 3-point field-goal percentage (37) made just five of their first 17 attempts before sinking four in the final quarter when the outcome was all but decided. Jackson (12 points) was the only Pistons starter in double figures. The Nuggets forced Detroit into 21 turnovers, which they turned into 22 points.
“When you have that kind of defense for 48 minutes, it’s not just one guy,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “It’s all five guys on the floor at one time playing as one unit, staying connected and covering for each other. I thought we had countless examples of that tonight.”
Then the Nuggets took control offensively by outscoring Detroit 31-20 in the third quarter. Murray scored 13 of his 28 points in the period, including seven straight to start the frame. Denver’s advantage ballooned to 22 points when Chandler (18 points, four rebounds) finished a transition dunk and Gary Harris followed with two free throws.
The scoring efforts from Murray, Chandler and Lyles came on a night Malone called “unselfish,” when normal producers Harris and Will Barton went 5-of-15 from the floor but combined for 19 assists and two turnovers.
But the difference, Malone and players emphasized, was the defense. Denver began this road trip with two poor performances on that end, which left Malone publicly fuming after a loss in New Orleans. He’s been satisfied with the effort in two of his team’s last three games. The most recent sent Detroit to its seventh consecutive loss after beginning the season 14-6.
Next up for Denver is Boston on the second night of a back-to-back set. The Celtics boast the best record in the Eastern Conference and plenty of weapons, even with Gordon Hayward out for the season with a broken ankle and Kyrie Irving missing their last game with a quadriceps injury.
To head back to Denver with another win, the Nuggets will likely need another “explosive” defensive performance like Tuesday night’s.
“We made them earn most of their buckets,” Plumlee said. “ … We made them work for everything.”