The Denver Nuggets came into The Hive tonight with plenty of distinct advantages. The Nuggets were the healthier team. They were the deeper team. They roster the presumptive MVP in Nikola Jokic. Their record (44-24) was 11 games better than Charlotte (33-35) and they were playing for position in the Western Conference playoffs while the Hornets are still fighting to get in. The Denver Nuggets used those advantages to deal the Hornets a loss in their building, 117-112, in an entertaining game that came down to the last minute.
The Hornets started off the game with no rhythm at all. The first play was a botched defensive assignment by Biyombo and two shots for Jokic at the line. Tipped passses and turnovers led to transition baskets for the sprinting Denver Nuggets. You could tell Nikola Jokic was salivating at the match-ups he’d be up against meeting Biyombo or McDaniels in the paint. At one point in the first quarter the Nuggets’ lead surged to 21 points. It looked like the Hornets were outgunned and outmanned.
Two players got more incorporated into the game in the second quarter; Cody Zeller and the surprisingly available Devonte’ Graham. They contributed to a 34-point quarter which shrunk the Nuggets lead to a possession by the half. Cody(+23) wiggled his way into the paint on offensive possessions and was there for the outlet pass or the finish. Cody had a massive put-back dunk that was apparently his fiftieth of the season.
The Hornets began the third quarter with the ejection of the usually cool, calm, and collected Coach Borrego. After a blatant non-call, Borrego got loud about the perceived discrepancy in fouls, however the numbers betrayed the argument as the teams were tied in fouls at 13 a piece. Borrego got the tech pretty quickly and that was all she wrote for the head coach. All was not lost as the Hornets continued to hold their own against a multi talented Nuggets team. Big Paul Milsap moved bodies in the paint with his old man game. It’s important to have bench players like Milsap, Austin Rivers, and Shaquille Harrison (apparently named after who you think) to be able to check in and log quality minutes. It’s a luxury the Hornets do not possess.
The grit and scrappiness of the Hornets did not extend into the fourth quarter. Early in the quarter the Hornets were down 15. Jokic didn’t even check-in until there were six minutes left. An interesting trait of this 2021 roster is they do not ‘say uncle’. Whether it is LaMelo, Graham, or consistently Terry Rozier, they stay in the game and can make runs in crunch time. Terry brought the Hornets within 5 points with three minutes left in the game. An off-the-screen 3-pointer by Graham kept it a two possession game.Then he hit another and brought it to one point with one minute left in the game. It may be too much to ask, but LaMelo failed to box-out Green which led to a score on the other end. Campazzo, keeping the dream alive for all of us, woke up from his slump and was instrumental down the stretch; he was +13 for the game.
Too many missed open jumpers (28% 3PT) and too many second chance points for the Nuggets were just too much to overcome. Aaron Gordon came back from his leg injury and contributed 17 for Denver which is the exact number of free throws Jokic shot on his way to 30pts, 11rebs, and 6 assists. Combined that with a 30 spot from Michael Porter Jr. and the Nuggets couldn’t have asked for more. With all of that working against them, though, the Hornets were able to hold their own.
Even with the loss, the Hornets hold on to the eighth seed in the East. The implication being the 7th and 8th seeds only need one win in the play-in to advance versus two wins for 9 and 10. Devonte’ Graham, with his 31 points off the bench, looks healthy as the Hornets face the L.A. Clippers of Thursday At The Hive. Three games left in this topsy turvy, health protocol ridden season and the Hornets are in the hunt.