STRONG CHARLOTTE BENCH STALLS NUGGETS 113-107
CHARLOTTE » Kemba Walker squared up from the top of the arc, rose and knocked down a clutch 3-pointer, sealing a Nuggets loss that might have bigger implications than just snapping their seven-game winning streak.
Starter Paul Millsap left the game in the third quarter of Friday’s eventual 113-107 loss, and teammate Monte Morris, who withstood an elbow from a teammate himself, said Millsap suffered a broken toe.
A Nuggets team official said that the team was still evaluating his status as of Friday night.
“They told me he broke his toe when we got back here,” Morris said in the postgame locker room.
Millsap suffered the right foot injury after he went to challenge Michael KiddGilchrist in the lane and lost his balance as his foot swung down toward the court. He immediately came out of the game and didn’t return.
Morris, who cleared the concussion protocol himself after taking an elbow from Trey Lyles, had a gash and a swollen eyelid but came back in the game as the Nuggets tried to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets, thanks to 21 points from Walker and 19 from Tony Parker off the bench, took advantage on a night when Denver’s beleaguered legs made everything difficult. The Nuggets shot just 38 percent from the field and dropped to 17-8 on the year.
Despite the loss, the Nuggets are off to their best start over 25 games since the 2009-10 season. And even though the defense wasn’t as sharp as it has been, Nuggets coach Michael Malone wasn’t upset about his team’s effort.
“We gave ourselves a chance on a night where you lose another player to an injury, you’re having a hard time making
shots, at least we competed and fought, and that’s something I really liked about our group tonight.”
The Nuggets, down 11 with 2:53 left, charged back and cut it to 106-103 on a 3-pointer from
Morris. But Kidd-Gilchrist stuffed Juancho Hernangomez at the rim, and Parker and Walker traded points to stop their three-game losing streak.
Walker’s 3-pointer with 6:02 left gave the Hornets a 99-86 lead, and the Nuggets, already thin from injuries to Gary Harris and Will Barton, didn’t have the depth to overcome the deficit.
The Nuggets hacked into the Hornets’ 11-point third quarter lead, cutting it down to just one before giving it right back to close the quarter with sloppy offensive possessions. Hernangomez played valuable minutes in particular, offering energy on defense and hustle on the glass. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds for his third career double-double.
Malone was rightfully concerned about Walker, whose deft dribble and dangerous outside shot made him a darkhorse MVP candidate earlier this year. But the Nuggets have had success defensively with some of the league’s best guards, notably Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.
“You have to be aggressive, you have to give them different looks, and sometimes you gotta be a little bit lucky,” Malone said. “I think all those things will come into tonight. … And not being afraid to mix up our coverage throughout the game just to give him different looks because if you give a great player the same look for 48, they’re going to get into a rhythm and they’re going topickyouapart.”
Walker came in averaging 26 points per game but was largely held in check by a combination of Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley before his fourth quarter spurt.
Hornets coach James Borrego was an assistant with Malone in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season and said the two had extensive conversations about defensive philosophies.
“They’re well-coached, disciplined, they have an identity,” Borrego said of the Nuggets. “Their defense has really picked up this year. We’ve always spent a lot of time (discussing) the defensive end, so I know that defense was driving him crazy probably the last couple years. They’ve been together now a couple years now, they’ve settled into their defensive coverage, their scheme, they’ve found something they like, they’re playing much more spirited on that end of the floor.”
In general, the praise for the Nuggets’ defensive effort this season has been warranted. They entered Friday with the NBA’s fifth-ranked defense, an about face after finishing last season 23rd.
But the defense, which showed cracks in Wednesday’s game in Orlando, didn’t put up much of a fight in the first half. The Hornets knocked down 8-of-17 3-pointers to build a 64-53 lead after two quarters. Charlotte’s bench, led by Tony Parker’s 13, outscored Denver’s 38-24 and exposed the Nuggets’ thinning depth.
Just as on Wednesday, the Nuggets’ closeouts lacked energy, and their 3-pointers weren’t falling as they tried to catch up. Millsap had 14 points and Beasley had 10 with two 3-pointers, but the team’s extended road trip looked like it took the legs out of the Western Conference’s top team.
Denver’s Jamal Murray drives against Charlotte’s Cody Zeller during the second half on Friday.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic tries to shoot between Charlotte’s Cody Zeller, left, and Michael KiddGilchrist during the second half on Friday night.