When asked pregame if the Nuggets’ matchups with the Sacramento Kings are “just another game,” Michael Malone gave the politically correct answer that there was no extra significance, intensity, or meaning behind Monday night’s affair.
It was the right answer in the moment with only 20 games remaining in the regular season and Denver battling for a playoff spot with the Kings and a slew of other Western Conference opponents, but Malone was 0-6 against his former employer before tonight. Putting yourself in his shoes, it would be hard to treat a matchup with Sacramento as just one of 82.
But after Monday night’s 108-96 win, maybe Malone can even go back to wearing Sacramento purple again, a color his family banned from their household after the Kings fired him in 2014.
“I have 15 purple ties that will never be worn again,” Malone said after the win. “It’s my wife’s favorite color and her and my two girls will never wear purple again. But they got to understand if I’m in the coaching business long enough, at some point, we’re just going to be wearing black.”
A somewhat contested first half saw Denver carry a 57-50 lead into the break, but the Nuggets outscored Sacramento 33-23 in the third quarter and lead 90-73 heading to the fourth. That was all Wilson Chandler and Denver needed to coast to their 29th win of the season.
Two days after an off the record comment from Chandler following Denver’s loss Saturday to Charlotte about not getting traded at February’s deadline made its way into the media, the 29-year-old put together arguably his best all-around game of the season.
Chandler scored a career-high 36 points on 13-23 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and helped set the tone on defense as Denver held Sacramento to just 96 points on 43.4 percent shooting.
“He was fantastic,” Malone said of Chandler. “We put him on the opposing team’s best players most nights. We ask him to switch and guard a lot of guys offensively and he’s shooting the three-ball well. Moving without the basketball. He was driving the ball. He was phenomenal tonight.”
Denver, who has seen a slight spike in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break, looked solid with Mason Plumlee at center in place of an ill Nikola Jokic. With Plumlee and Darrell Arthur occupying the five, Denver can be more aggressive on pick-and-rolls and hedge out to stop opposing guards in their tracks. Jokic’s lack of quickness on defense ties them down in those situations and the Nuggets are forced to play pick-and-rolls more conservative when he’s on the floor.
“It’s a lot easier with Mason and DA,” Malone said about playing aggressively on defense. “DA’s very comfortable being aggressive. Mason’s very comfortable being up and being aggressive. Nikola, obviously there’s a fine line if he’s up too aggressive and we get beat were down two guys and we also can't afford him to get into foul trouble. But we’ll pick our spots.”
Tonight was a look into what a more mobile and active Denver frontline can do on the defensive end of the floor.
Elsewhere, Danilo Gallinari scored 18 points on a clean 5-7 shooting. Gallinari was also a team-high +18 on the night. Gary Harris chipped in 15 points in 35 minutes while Plumlee finished with ten points, 15 rebounds, and five assists.
Malone made a point leading up to tonight’s matchup that the Nuggets needed to get out to a good start. Without Jokic, who came down with an illness Monday, that would hold true.
Denver scored 25 points in the first quarter, much of which was to the credit of Chandler, who had 16 points on 6-7 shooting. Chandler accounted for 16 of Denver’s 25 points in the first quarter when the rest of the Nuggets combined to shoot 3-12 from the field.
“I joked with him after the game, keep on saying that you’re not happy here and I’m going to play you the whole game,” Malone said.
One storyline heading into tonight’s matchup was how would the Nuggets offense look without Jokic? It turns out Denver would be just fine in that department over the first two quarters with Chandler and Gallinari shouldering the load.
After his 16-point first quarter, Chandler put home five more in the second on his way to 21 first-half points. Gallinari, who was also relied upon for more offense in Jokic’s absence, put home six of his own in the second and finished the half with 11. The Nuggets’ two starting forwards combined to scored 32 of Denver’s 57 points in the first half and paced Denver to a 57-50 lead at the break.
Chandler knew he was in the zone early on.
“After about three or four shots you kind of know,” Chandler said.
For Sacramento, Buddy Hield got off to a hot start scoring nine first-half points on 3-4 shooting while Darren Collison scored nine as well.
An inspiring defensive third quarter from Denver where the Nuggets held the Kings to under 50 percent shooting and outrebounded Sacramento 12-5, gave Denver some breathing room. The Nuggets held off a late fourth-quarter push by the Kings who brought the margin to nine with under a minute remaining, but Denver eventually eased their way to the win.
With the victory, the Nuggets move two full games up on the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth seed in the West.