The hottest team in the Eastern Conference has now dropped games to its last two Western Conference opponents as the Charlotte Hornets fell to the Denver Nuggets, 101-93. The Hornets began the week with a loss at home to the Dallas Mavericks and wrapped up the week with a home loss to the Nuggets on Saturday night.
Denver boasts rookie guard Emmanuel Mudiay, and his elite strength, athleticism and size for the position could have caused trouble for Charlotte. The rook had his moments on the road but it was another Denver guard that had his way with the Hornets - and it was a familiar one.
Former Charlotte Bobcat D.J. Augustin poured in a game-high 24 points off the bench, pounding and thumping his chest along the way. It ended on bad terms years ago when Augustin and Charlotte parted ways, and he's played here since then, but a fire burned inside of him today. He was the most important player for Denver, and at times, the sole reason the Nuggets held their lead.
Within yet another rigorous stretch, the Hornets skated out to another sluggish start. Thursday night in Miami, Charlotte got down by 15 points early on.
Cody Zeller returned from a bruised knee and made his presence known on both ends in the first quarter, a powerful dunk on one end and three consecutive blocks on one possession on the other end.
It was a pedestrian first 12 minutes for Charlotte, and thanks to a 50 percent performance from the field, Denver held a six-point lead at the end of the quarter.
The Nuggets quickly built their lead to 12 in the second quarter and after an Augustin 3-pointer, the Charlotte deficit was now 15 - the same mark that sparked the run in Miami. Sadly, another surge didn't occur right away inside the Hive. Augustin continued toying with the Hornets defense and at times, it seemed like Denver could not miss. A sloppy game was sliding Denver's way as an uncharacteristic eight early turnovers for Charlotte, combined with poor shooting, left the Hornets in a deep hole. A Mudiay floater at the end of the first half gave the Nuggets their largest lead of the game at the time, 17.
Six Nuggets entered Saturday's game averaging five plus rebounds a game and Denver ranked ninth in the league in rebounding. Charlotte, who ranks 14th, had a negative 12 rebounding margin after the first half. The Nuggets finished the game with a plus 13 rebounding margin, but Charlotte battled their disadvantage and made it a game after the break.
Zeller was the first Hornet in double-figures as Denver built its lead to 22 midway through the third quarter. Shortly after the Nuggets stretched their lead, Charlotte responded with an eight to nothing run, forcing Denver head coach Michael Malone to call a timeout.
Kemba Walker rose from the bench, fist pumping and high-fiving teammates that arrived from the floor. The energy was building in the Hive and a comeback felt inevitable. After the timeout, Jeremy Lin hit a circus shot with a few seconds left in the quarter. Will Barton was there with a floater at the buzzer to put Denver up 16 as a response to end the quarter.
Once down 22 with 5:05 left in the third quarter, Charlotte used the next 8:35 of gametime to cut Denver's lead to nine, outscoring the Nuggets by 13 during the stretch. Six fourth quarter points from Al Jefferson began the charge on the Denver lead but Nicolas Batum was the star of the comeback. The Frenchman knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers, pouring in 11 straight points by himself.
A 14 to three run in the fourth quarter helped Charlotte cut their deficit to five.
It would get no closer than that as a couple of defensive breakdowns down the stretch helped Denver push their lead to nine. Charlotte would counter with a couple more attacks but it simply wasn't enough.
Batum scored 13 of Charlotte's 15 points in the final five minutes of the game, finishing with 24 points along with nine assists and eight rebounds. Zeller tallied a career-high five blocks and Lin contributed 16 points off the bench. Jefferson had 10 points and six boards in 19 minutes with foul trouble curbing his time on the floor Saturday night.
Charlotte will be the first team to play the San Antonio Spurs after their heavyweight clash Saturday night as the two teams meet on Monday at Time Warner Cable Arena.