CHARLOTTE – Michael Malone barked at his defense, and then stalked the sidelines looking for an explanation.
Even though his team nearly spoiled a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, the Nuggets survived a tense, physical affair Monday night, winning 113-109 against the feisty Hornets.
“To start this road trip off against one of the hotter teams in the NBA, that’s a terrific win,” Malone said.
The victory also marked Denver’s 23rd road win of the season, a new franchise record.
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the plucky Hornets attacked the paint without abandon and made the Nuggets sweat. Miles Bridges poured in 27 points, and electric point guard LaMelo Ball conducted Charlotte’s relentless attack with 22 points and 11 assists. Even old friend Isaiah Thomas (12 points) flashed a smile against his former team.
“Like my father says, it’s like a guy standing at the ticket office at the movie theatre,” Malone said of his team’s porous defense. “Give me a ticket, enjoy the show.”
But behind Nikola Jokic’s NBA-leading 19th triple-double, Aaron Gordon’s 21 points and Monte Morris’ steady night, the Nuggets hung on to build a two-game cushion over No. 7 seed Minnesota with six games left. They’ll finish their two-game road trip Wednesday at Indiana.
“We were really calm (late in the fourth quarter),” Jokic said. “Like, we were controlling the game. I felt really calm.”
Up 13 early in the fourth quarter, the Hornets buzzed between the 3-point line and the paint, finding success at both levels. Denver closed out the win with clutch free throws from both Jokic and Morris, whose nine assists contributed to 29 for the team as a whole.
Denver survived another sloppy night with 16 turnovers but managed to improve to 45-31 on the season.
Jokic’s passing drew audible gasps as he took over in the third quarter. But as soon as he softened up Charlotte’s defense with his vision, he picked them apart with his touch. Jokic scored 11 in the quarter and found Will Barton for a 3-pointer at the top of the arc to seal his triple-double with 4:35 left in the frame. That pass came amid Denver’s 13-0 run that temporarily broke the game open.
The run was punctuated by Montrezl Harrell’s ejection with 3:59 left. With Austin Rivers down near the hoop, Harrell appeared to step over him, which his teammates, including Gordon, didn’t appreciate. Gordon exchanged words with Harrell before he was assessed a technical foul. Harrell drew two and the ejection. Denver’s 37-point quarter gave the Nuggets a 93-84 lead heading into the fourth.
Malone said the game plan, against the up-tempo Hornets, was to run.
“Whether it’s off of makes, misses, turnovers, we want to get out and run, we want to get out and score early,” he said.
The handful of first-half alley-oops to Jeff Green and Gordon seemed to justify the strategy. Though the Nuggets trailed 57-56 at the break, their 16 fast-break points followed script.
The other aspect of their plan — playing through Jokic regardless of Charlotte’s defensive scheme — yielded, too.
“We still have to get him the ball,” Malone said. “We still have to be better in terms of our reaction to the double-team, our spacing, our ability to use our dribble to get a better angle, use pass fakes, whatever it may be because he has to touch it.”
Jokic only managed six points in the first half, but his 10 rebounds and seven assists underscored how many ways the reigning MVP can beat you. Once Gordon established early momentum, Jokic and the rest of his teammates found their burly forward planted in the paint for easy looks.
He registered 19 points over the first two quarters.
As Ball dictated the pace for Charlotte’s starters, Thomas ran the offense for the second unit. His nine points helped give the Hornets a 23-6 scoring edge off the bench early.