Michael Malone took a few steps onto the court, raised both hands and waited for the requisite fist bumps.
They would come, but only after Bones Hyland soaked in just a bit more love from the rowdy Nuggets crowd.
On a Saturday night, with a healthy smattering of Lakers jerseys dotting Ball Arena, the Nuggets hammered Los Angeles, 133-96. The drubbing was so convincing, most fans sporting LeBron James jerseys headed for the concourse with half of the fourth quarter remaining.
Amid injuries and COVID protocols, Malone has never dwelled on all the talent that’s missing from his rotations.
“We had more than enough in that locker room,” Malone said. “… That’s one thing I’ve stressed from Day 1. We’re not gonna make excuses, we’re not gonna offer explanations.”
Hyland played a healthy hand in the rout with a career-high 27 points on six 3-pointers along with 10 rebounds. Hyland and Malone had a meeting of the minds prior to Denver’s win on Thursday, and Hyland said it was instrumental to his mindset.
“It took some stress off my shoulders,” Hyland said. “It made me relax more. It also made me more comfortable, just to know me and Coach got that connection.”
Collectively, the Nuggets shot 23-of-40 from 3-point range and had seven guys finish with double figures.
Nikola Jokic paced the pounding with 17 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, dominating Dwight Howard and undermining Los Angeles’ decision to play big. Of all the Lakers, only James found some semblance of rhythm, finishing with 25 points on just 9-of-23 from the field.
His defensive blankets included Jeff Green, Aaron Gordon and, at times, Davon Reed. The latter found himself on an island with James on several occasions more than held his own.
Green, just as he did in Thursday’s win over the Blazers, dunked everything in sight. He set a season-high with 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
The Nuggets improved to 22-19 with a game Sunday against the Jazz. Overall, they’ve now won four of their last five.
It took Jokic barely two minutes into the third quarter before he served up his 10th assist of the night, clinching his eighth triple-double of the season. Always content to dish, he kept slicing Los Angeles’ defense for several more assists as the Nuggets surged.
The only player Jokic now trails on the triple-double charts this season? Russell Westbrook, who added some spice to Saturday’s contest when he took exception to some stout, physical defense on a drive midway through the third. He and Gordon needed to be separated before each drew technical fouls.
Perhaps the Lakers’ boiling frustration got to Westbrook, though it didn’t change the tenor of the quarter. The Nuggets outscored Los Angeles 29-19 in the period and held a comfortable 102-79 lead into the fourth.
With JaMychal Green entering health and safety protocol on Saturday, the Nuggets asked even more of Green, who alternated from forward to center as the situation warranted against the Lakers. In reality, Green’s been among the unsung heroes of this choppy, unforgiving Nuggets season.
“Just overall, I think Jeff’s impact has been remarkable,” Malone said. “What you see on the court, him playing the five, playing the four, screening, rolling, dunking. It’s funny, like, we all get amazed. But when his peers, the guys in that locker room, are constantly amazed by what a 35-year-old, 15-year veteran is still doing from an athletic standpoint, it really is remarkable.
“… Like we had the other night with no JaMychal and really limited bigs, limited smalls, limited wings,” Malone quipped.
Having coached James from 2005-2010 in Cleveland, Malone was just as effusive about the Lakers’ all-time great.
“I think in 10 years we’ll still be talking about him,” Malone said only half-kidding. He said James’ dedication to his craft, in addition to his body, is often overlooked.
Ironically, Green, the Nuggets’ elder statesman, may have picked up a few habits from James when the two crossed paths together in Cleveland.
Both were outstanding in the first half, but the Nuggets’ complete team effort earned them a 73-60 halftime lead. Jokic carved up Howard for 14 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in the first half alone. His singular dominance frustrated Howard and used his physicality against him, cutting him up with lithe dekes and a soft touch.
Green added 11 first-half points, including three dunks, and Hyland had a game-high 16 points at the break. Playing with the confidence of a five-time All-Star, the rookie hoisted without abandon, dazzling the crowd with his handle and his range.