Denver Nuggets 108, Chicago Bulls 114: Three Takeaways

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyroNBA

One thing that’s clear about the Denver Nuggets is that they won’t back down from a challenge. Without reigning MVP Nikola Jokić Friday night, Denver nearly pulled off an upset against the Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately, clutch shot-making from Chicago’s leading duo of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan ultimately fueled a 114-108 victory for the road team.

It would be hard to script a better start to the opening quarter for the shorthanded Nuggets. Led by 10 points from Aaron Gordon, Denver’s offense was lights out early, which led to a 24-14 lead. As expected, Chicago responded and eventually tied the game at 30 heading into the second frame. The Nuggets shot 61.9 percent from the field and dished out eight assists in the opening 12 minutes.

Both teams traded buckets throughout the second quarter, with neither team gaining a significant advantage. Denver’s offense was fueled by 26 combined points from Gordon and Will Barton, while Zach LaVine paced Chicago’s attack with 12 first-half points. The Bulls ultimately took a slight 53-52 advantage into the halftime break.

A quick 8-0 run from the Bulls to open the second half prompted an early timeout from Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, as his squad fell behind by nine points. The Ball Arena crowd injected even more energy into Friday’s contest during the third quarter as both teams traded buckets. After pushing the lead up to 12 earlier in the quarter, Chicago finished with an 88-78 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

A 6-0 run to open the final quarter brought Denver within four points as the Nuggets continued to hustle on defense and on the boards. Facundo Campazzo knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers as the Nuggets once again got within four points, but Chicago’s offense continued to hit timely buckets to push the lead up to 101-93 with just under four minutes remaining. Although the Nuggets were able to score consistently down the stretch, Denver struggled to get stops against LaVine and DeRozan.

Here are three takeaways from Friday’s loss.

Gordon steps up

Aaron Gordon’s impressive season continued Friday night, as the 26-year-old forward assumed a larger role on the offensive end to great success with Jokić out of the lineup.

Gordon was active early, as 10 first-quarter points helped Denver establish a tone for the remainder of the game. In the end, Gordon finished with 28 points, nine rebounds, and four assists in 37 minutes of action, including two blocks on the defensive end. The 28 points set a new season-high for Gordon.

Chicago thrives in the paint

In a game in which the Bulls struggled from deep, Chicago’s advantage in the paint helped fuel a victory.

The Bulls outscored the Nuggets 50-38 in the paint Friday night, as Chicago’s guards were able to breakdown the defense and get Denver’s defense in scramble mode. It certainly helps that Chicago’s offense is not built around the 3-point line, instead relying on a steady diet of mid-range jumpers and shots at the rim to put points on the board.

It also certainly didn’t hurt that the Bulls went a perfect 24-of-24 from the charity stripe, which included several clutch free throws from DeRozan in the closing minutes.

Campazzo leads Denver’s second unit

Early in Friday’s contest it appeared that a similar story would play out for the Nuggets as their second unit struggled to find a rhythm in the first half.

However, Facundo Campazzo caught fire from deep in the fourth quarter and led Denver’s second unit with 16 points and four assists. PJ Dozier chipped in with nine points and 10 rebounds as Denver’s second unit went toe-to-toe with Chicago’s bench group. In the end, the two teams each received 33 points off the bench Friday night, which contributed to the contest coming down to the final minutes.

Denver returns to action Sunday night against the Phoenix Suns (6 p.m. MT).

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