DETROIT – Christian Braun, a national champion last season at Kansas, loves playing in March.
The Nuggets’ rookie has swung in and out of the rotation like a yo-yo, but he was there Thursday night, when Denver badly needed to seize momentum and, later, a win. The Nuggets snapped their season-long four-game losing streak, knocking off the Pistons, 119-100. They also became the first team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff spot.
“We’re not having a party,” joked Nuggets coach Michael Malone, while alluding to greater aspirations.
“But you have to enjoy the moments,” he said. “If you don’t, I don’t know why you do this.”
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, when a bench unit featuring Braun and Jamal Murray, wrested control of the game. Braun made a couple baskets off looks from Murray, setting the table for Nikola Jokic to return to action and dominate. Once Jokic exited the game with 30 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, he was greeted by a hearty cheer from the away crowd, which was dotted with Serbian flags.
Murray ended the game with 19 points, and Braun tallied nine points and two steals. Former Piston Kentavious Caldwell-Pope buried four 3-pointers en route to 20 points.
“Feels good just to be around old fans, friends, and family at that,” Caldwell-Pope said.
What had been the worst defense in the NBA over their four-game dip held Detroit to 36 in the second half. After yielding 20 second-chance points in the first half, Denver conceded only three in the final two quarters. The Pistons were paced by Rodney McGruder, who had 20 points on six 3-pointers.
The Nuggets, now 47-23, will continue their road trip Saturday at New York.
A 15-8 run to open the third quarter suggested the Nuggets finally understood the urgency of beating a team that was, theoretically, trying to lose. But McGruder buried his fifth 3-pointer, and Denver’s turnovers started to compound. It wasn’t that the Nuggets weren’t playing hard; they were just sloppy. Jokic threw the ball away at halfcourt trying to kick-start a possession. Later, Jeff Green passed to Jokic, who was then stripped by an unsuspecting defender.
Murray connected on an open 3-pointer from the wing late in the third quarter, and Jokic continued to assert himself inside. By allowing only 22 Piston points in the third – the Nuggets finally kept Detroit off the offensive glass – Denver earned itself an 86-86 tie heading into the final quarter. Considering the last week, it constituted a small victory.
Malone said he showed his team 10 clips from their most recent loss, in Toronto on Tuesday. Six of them were examples of listless basketball, featuring no resistance and little urgency. The other four served as proof that despite the season-long losing streak, the Nuggets still had moments of selfless play – their particular brand of hoops.
“What I’m looking for to start the game is urgency, aggressiveness, physicality,” Malone said.
He also disclosed a chat with Murray, where he encouraged his starting point guard to start rebuilding his confidence on the defensive end.
“I have to find a way to help Jamal play better,” Malone said.
Murray looked OK in spurts throughout the first half, registering 11 points, but that progress was undermined by three turnovers. As a team, Denver’s defense was, again, underwhelming. The Pistons drained eight 3s over the first two quarters, while the Nuggets’ lethargic defense breathed life into a team that had its eyes on the draft lottery. When Detroit carried a 64-58 lead into the break, it left nearly the entire roster dumbfounded and downtrodden as they headed to the locker room.
Jokic and Murray were the first to the tunnel, while Malone, more befuddled than anyone else, followed.
Only Jokic played with any sense of urgency. His 18 first-half points, on just eight shots, showed an aggression befitting a superstar desperate to win.
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