CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker squared up from the top of the arc, rose and knocked down a clutch 3-pointer that more or less sealed it.
The Hornets snapped the Nuggets’ seven-game winning streak, winning 113-107, on a night when Denver’s beleaguered legs made everything difficult. The Nuggets shot just 38 percent from the field and dropped to 17-8 on the year.
Despite the loss, the Nuggets are off to their best start over 25 games since the 2009-10 season.
The Nuggets, down 11 with 2:53 left, charged back and cut it to 106-103 on a 3-pointer from Monte Morris, who returned after getting knocked in the face by his own teammate. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stuffed Juancho Hernangomez at the rim, and Tony Parker and Walker traded points to earn the win. Walker had 21 and Parker had 19 off the bench as the Hornets’ reserves outscored the Nuggets’ 59-40.
As if injuries hadn’t already plagued Denver, Paul Millsap suffered a right foot injury and didn’t return.
The Nuggets hacked into the Hornets’ 11-point third quarter lead, cutting it down to just one before giving it right back to close the quarter with sloppy offensive possessions. Hernangomez played valuable minutes in particular, offering energy on defense and hustle on the glass. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds for his third career double-double.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone was rightfully concerned about Walker, whose deft dribble and dangerous outside shot made him a darkhorse MVP candidate earlier this year. But the Nuggets have had success defensively with some of the league’s best guards, notably Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.
“You have to be aggressive, you have to give them different looks, and sometimes you gotta be a little bit lucky,” Malone said. “I think all those things will come into tonight. … And not being afraid to mix up our coverage throughout the game just to give him different looks because if you give a great player the same look for 48, they’re going to get into a rhythm and they’re going to pick you apart.”
Hornets coach James Borrego was an assistant with Malone in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season and said the two had extensive conversations about defensive philosophies.
“They’re well-coached, disciplined, they have an identity,” Borrego said of the Nuggets. “Their defense has really picked up this year. We’ve always spent a lot of time (discussing) the defensive end, so I know that defense was driving him crazy probably the last couple years. They’ve been together now a couple years now, they’ve settled into their defensive coverage, their scheme, they’ve found something they like, they’re playing much more spirited on that end of the floor.”
In general, the praise for the Nuggets’ defensive effort this season has been warranted. They entered Friday with the NBA’s fifth-ranked defense, an about face after finishing last season 23rd.
But the defense, which showed cracks in Wednesday’s game in Orlando, didn’t put up much of a fight in the first half. The Hornets knocked down 8-of-17 3-pointers to build a 64-53 lead after two quarters. Charlotte’s bench, led by Tony Parker’s 13, outscored Denver’s 38-24 and exposed the Nuggets’ thinning depth.
Just as on Wednesday, the Nuggets’ closeouts lacked energy, and their 3-pointers weren’t falling as they tried to catch up. Millsap had 14 points and Beasley had 10 with two 3-pointers, but the team’s extended road trip looked like it took the legs out of the Western Conference’s top team.
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