Denver Nuggets 109, Miami Heat 89: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

Michael Malone will likely be all smiles after a complete performance by his Nuggets in a 109-89 victory over the Miami Heat at Pepsi Center. 

"I thought our defense tonight was fantastic," Malone said after the game. "I gave our guys the morning off in hopes that we would have great energy tonight and I think, for the most part, we did. I saw signs of life, in terms of getting back to Denver Nuggets basketball -- 35 assists, more energy, more passing and cutting, and obviously, the defense against a team that’s playing red hot overall, was fantastic.”

Denver’s Jamal Murray led all scorers with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists on 60 percent shooting. The Heat were paced by Jimmy Butler, who had 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists on 3-of-12 shooting.

The Heat were among the NBA’s hottest teams coming into Tuesday’s matchup, but the Nuggets asserted themselves early in the contest. The team hit seven of their first nine shots and had assists on six of those field goals to take a 14-8 lead. Paul Millsap sparked his teammates early on, scoring nine of the team’s opening 17 points. After holding on to a narrow one-point in the opening 12 minutes, the Nuggets grabbed control of the game in the second quarter and didn’t look back. 

The team shot 52.2 percent while holding the visitors to 8-of-23 shooting. Will Barton player had nine points while connecting on 3 of 4 shot attempts in the quarter. Despite losing both Gary Harris (left ankle sprain) and Paul Millsap (facial laceration) to injury in the third, Denver would pad its lead to a commanding 19 points. In the second half, the Nuggets held the Heat to just 15 made field goals. 

The Nuggets (5-2) will now finish their two-game homestand against the Philadelphia Sixers (5-1) Friday (7 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM). 

Here are the takeaways: 

Thriller 

Will Barton III returned to the Nuggets starting lineup after missing two games with a toe injury and continued his strong start to the season with a double-double, dropping 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. Barton III’s ability to improvise and create plays, sometimes out of nothing, has been crucial for Denver this season. 

"That's when I'm at my best, grabbing defensive rebounds and then pushing it and putting pressure on the [opposing] defense," Barton III said. 

Entering Tuesday’s game, Barton III was the Nuggets’ leader in free-throw attempts at almost five per game (4.8), highlighting his ability to penetrate and generate easy scoring chances. When Barton III was in the starting five for the opening four games of the season, the Nuggets averaged 24.3 free throw attempts per game. With him sidelined in their previous two contests, they averaged just 16 attempts from the charity stripe per contest. He also played strong defense on Butler, who shot 25 percent for the night. His impact in the lineup is clear. 

“I think Will is a guy, when you give him a matchup like a Jimmy Butler, like a Paul George, like certain players and marquee names, he really gets up for those guys,” Malone said. “Jimmy is an All-NBA type of player. I think Will was locked in, he understood what we were trying to do as a team, but he also understood what he had to do individually to try and make life difficult for Jimmy Butler.”

Malone added, “I think Will, when he’s locked in and focused like he’s playing right now, he gives you a lot of positives on both ends of the floor.”

Dimes and more dimes 

The Nuggets struggled with their ball movement in the opening six games, averaging just 21.2 assists per game (24th in the NBA). That’s a significant departure from last season, where they were second in the NBA in sharing the rock, dishing out 27.4 assists per game. 

On Tuesday, the team got back to playing its brand of Mile High Basketball – recording a season-high 35 assists. Monte Morris led the charge as he led Denver with eight assists. The Nuggets had eight players who recorded three assists or more against the Heat. While Malone will continue to focus on the team’s early-season issues with turnovers as they gave up 18 points on as many giveaways, he has to be happy with the team’s improved focus on moving the ball around. 

Nikola Jokić praised the team's win as its best all-around performance of the season. 

"Yeah, I think just because we passed the ball, we had a lot of assists," he said. "We kind of ran a little bit more than we usually do, we had a couple fast-break points. We defended really good, they missed a lot of shots." 

Defense shines again

Miami had seven players averaging double figures entering Tuesday’s game, but only four reached that mark tonight. 

After allowing Miami to shoot 47.6 percent from the field in the first quarter, Denver played stifling defense in the second – containing the team to 34.8 percent shooting. The team saw three players (Murray, Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant) collect two steals a piece as the Nuggets grabbed 10 steals overall. The team also edged Miami on the glass 47-44. 

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