The Nuggets don’t know lightness. It’s just not in their nature.
Denver avoided what could have been an ugly double-digit crash in the fourth quarter on Sunday and held on to beat the Pistons 117-111. With 16 points by the start of the fourth quarter, Detroit took the lead with two equalizers in the final two minutes.
Former Nugget Trey Liles added to the drama eight of his 18 in the fourth quarter, but Nikola Jokic rebuffed the Pistons, who scored six late in a row and froze the game.
Jokic posted 34 points, nine rebounds and eight assists to end his four-game triple-double streak. Not that it mattered to Jokic.
The Nuggets, now 24-21, will again receive the Pistons on Tuesday in Detroit to begin their rocky six-game journey. They ended their six-game home stance at 4–2.
DeMarcus Cousins was unimpressed in his Nuggets debut, posting just two points and six rebounds in 12 minutes. But he was part of a strong bench in which the Nuggets outscored Detroit’s reserves 41–37.
In addition, the Nuggets hung 60 points in the paint to help fight 18 points from Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart and Cade Cunningham.
Every time the Nuggets looked like they were building a lead, they flipped it or didn’t use an open 3-pointer. Finally, with 4:50 left in the third quarter, Jokic found Bryn Forbes lingering outside the three-point line and exhausted his gaze. Two minutes later, reserve Devon Reed hit a treble, followed shortly after by Faku Campazzo.
As Campazzo retreated to the defensive, he looked up at the sky with relief. Zeke Nnaji hit a treble before the quarter ended, and the Nuggets’ second troop took a 92–76 lead ahead of the final quarter.
Playing with Jokic and reserves, Forbes looked more comfortable than in the debut.
“When you make a trade on your own, it takes a while because you bring a new person, a new personality, into the locker room, into the culture,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
His previous experience with respected organizations such as Milwaukee and San Antonio helped ease the transition.
On Sunday, Malone had a healthy fear of rebuilding the Pistons for one specific reason.
“Like I told our players, when you’re a team like Detroit, they have nothing to lose,” Malone said before the game.
He said that human nature is becoming a factor, and teams are inevitably lowering their guard against teams tied to the lottery.
“…These games scare the hell out of me,” he said.
The first half showed that Malone had cause for concern. The Nuggets breathed life into Detroit’s key playmakers and continued to play the defense that had recently plagued them. Cunningham and Stewart totaled 28 points, demonstrating overall fearlessness.
As a result, both teams entered the break with the score tied at 60.
The Nuggets played to their limits, sending the ball over Jokic and Aaron Gordon. Denver’s one-two hits also scored 28 points in total. As a team, the Nuggets scored 36 paint points in the first half.
In a potential hopeful sign of things to come, Denver’s second division has found some rhythm. Both Forbes and Zeke Nnaji scored seven points in the first half.