Denver Nuggets 114, Charlotte Hornets 112: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

It wasn’t pretty, but the Nuggets secured a much-needed 114-112 victory over the Hornets thanks to an incredible fadeaway bucket by Jamal Murray with six seconds remaining. 

"Give Jamal Murray credit, he wound up making a very tough shot," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters after the game. "Give our guys credit, this wasn't the greatest game we've ever played, but we found a way to win." 
Murray would pace Denver with 18 points and six assists while Nikola Jokić almost had another triple-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. The Nuggets had seven scorers in double-digits and secured their first win in Charlotte since March 19, 2016. The Hornets were led by Devonte' Graham, who had a game-high 24 points. 

"I think we stayed locked in," Murray told Altitude's Chris Dempsey after the game. "Against the Warriors [in Tuesday's loss], we kind of broke down a little bit and got into desperation mode. Tonight, we handled the runs [by Charlotte], we answered back and played more physical. We got up and down [the court] and that's the type of game we like to play. It was a great win and we got a lot of guys in the game who were able to contribute." 
The Nuggets wrap up a season-sweep over Hornets and improve their road record to an impressive 18-12. 
Here are the takeaways: 
Crafty Thrill 
With the Nuggets trailing by two in the final five minutes of the game, Will Barton III found a cheeky way to energize his teammates. The veteran small forward was trying to find Nikola Jokić on an inbound pass, but the All-Star center was swarmed by two Hornets defenders. So Barton III threw a pass off the butt of Cody Martin and slammed the ball to tie the game at 96 apiece. 

"It was a big play, it was a smart play, a savvy play by Will Barton in a really short clock situation. [It] was a big basket," Malone said. "I think our guys showed they were poised down the stretch." 
Barton III then proceeded to jaw a little at Martin, invigorating his colleagues on the play. Barton III’s comeback season has been an integral part of their 41 wins so far this season, but his leadership has been just as crucial. Whether it's serving as a mentor to highly-touted rookie Michael Porter Jr. or giving pep talks to star guard Jamal Murray, Barton III is adept at reading the temperature of his teammates and delivering in key moments. Thursday was another example and the 29-year-old delivered with 16 points and seven boards on 60 percent shooting. 
Jerami Grant, Monte Morris spark second unit 
With 1:26 remaining, Jerami Grant delivered a hustle play that made Jokić flex his muscles in celebration. The backup power forward fought for an offensive rebound past two defenders at the rim and converted the bucket through contact. Jokić delighted with his teammate’s effort, curled his two biceps to show Grant love. Although Grant would miss the subsequent free throw, it showcased a resilient effort from the second unit. 
Grant would finish the contest with 11 points on 55.6 percent shooting, coming back from an off night against the Warriors where he had just three points and four boards. Despite a quiet night on Tuesday, the Nuggets have to be happy with what they’ve gotten out of their reserve forward over the past six games. Entering Thursday’s contest, he was averaging 16 points and three rebounds on 51.9 percent shooting, including 45 percent from downtown. 

Another player whose production Michael Malone has to be pleased with is Monte Morris, who had 15 points and four assists on 75 percent shooting. This continues a hot streak for the Nuggets’ reserve, who is averaging 10.4 points and 3.6 assists in his last 10 outings, shooting 53 percent during that span. Denver’s bench outscored Charlotte’s 41-31. 

"I thought they were terrific [the bench]," Malone said. "I rolled with JG [Jerami Grant] the whole fourth quarter, his energy and athleticism was great. [It] was more conducive to close the game with him tonight and that was more evident in that last play, when we were up two and [he had] great one-on-one defense on Terry Rozier [to close out the game]." 
Lacking urgency 
Barring a catastrophe, the Nuggets are just 20 games away from returning to the postseason for the second-straight year. It’s an accomplishment the team should acknowledge and appreciate considering the six-year postseason drought that proceeded its success. Although the Nuggets will be satisfied with getting their first win in Charlotte in four years, there are recent bad habits that continue to give the team issues. The team will need to address them quickly or it could spell trouble in the playoffs. 
The biggest concern lies with the defense, an area that has dramatically declined over the last 10 games. During the first two months of the season, the Nuggets had the top-rated defense in the NBA with a 101.9 rating. That rating has slipped to 109, with Denver currently sitting 12th. The most worrying trend is the team’s recent struggles in defending the three-pointer. During the first two months of the season, the team was top of the league in opponent three-point percentage. In the 10 games prior to Thursday’s contest against the Hornets, the Nuggets have allowed opponents to shoot 37.4 percent from three – 19th in the NBA during that span. 
In Charlotte, the Nuggets allowed the home team to hit 39.4 percent from downtown. That was a significant reason why Denver had to rally from eight down in the fourth quarter. With only three games separating seeds 2-5 in the Western Conference, these are the games Denver needs to assert itself in order to maintain its homecourt advantage in the opening round.  


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