MINNEAPOLIS – The Nuggets already had one all-star in Nikola Jokic.
Now they have an entire coaching staff.
By virtue of Saturday night’s thrilling 107-106 win, Nuggets coach Michael Malone and his staff earned the honor of coaching Team LeBron in this month’s All-Star Game. The Nuggets and Warriors are tied for first place at 37-15, but Denver held the tiebreaker with its 7-1 division record.
“Yeah, players got me,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, sporting a soaking wet dress shirt. “Hell of a win for us, and those guys, the players were excited at the fact that we just won the All-Star coaches. Very joyous locker room, and I got the brunt of the Gatorade shower. … Obviously there’s a very small part of me that wanted to relax with my family and be a husband and be a father for a few days. (But) any time you can represent your team, your city, your fans at the All-Star game is an honor.”
Malone has his all-star center to thank for sending him to Charlotte. Jokic fired a full-court inbounds pass to Malik Beasley for a crucial bucket late in the fourth quarter to secure his ninth triple-double of the season and give the Nuggets a 107-104 lead.
After another basket,Timberwolves wing Luol Deng misfired on a late 3-point attempt to give the Nuggets the win.
Jokic finished with 13 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists and was nearly matched by Monte Morris, who had 17 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Beasley was fantastic for the second night in a row and poured in 22 points on four 3-pointers.
“We’re winning games with guys that didn’t even play for us last year,” Malone said.
Karl-Anthony Towns led Minnesota with 31 points.
The game opened up in the third quarter as both all-star big men got feisty. Jokic, particularly frustrated with one offensive foul call, got in the official’s face and drew a technical foul as Barton and Beasley tried to calm him down. Mason Plumlee immediately subbed in for Jokic and was on the receiving end of a huge dunk from Towns to spark the crowd.
With the Nuggets missing Gary Harris for the second consecutive game and Jamal Murray for the fifth in a row, reserves Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez hit several huge 3-pointers in the third quarter to eventually give Denver an 89-88 lead heading into the fourth.
New Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said he wasn’t shocked at Denver’s current standing.
“In transition, they’re just really confident and then unselfish,” Saunders said when asked what stands out when scouting Denver. “I know Coach Malone, and I know how well-coached they are, so the success is not surprising.”
Entering Saturday the Nuggets had won 25 of their last 29 games when serving out at least 30 assists. Coming off a season-high 37 in Friday’s win over Houston, Malone said that just reaching 25 was a point of emphasis.
“I think that speaks to how unselfish we are and how everybody on the floor is trying to play for each other, not just with each other,” Malone said. “There’s a big difference. And it starts with your best player. Nikola sets the tone, and you want your best player to set the tone in many different ways, on the court with how unselfish he is. We’re a team that really thrives on that .5 (-second before a pass) mentality, and I think you can tell when you watch us play that our guys have taken that to heart.”
Towns peppered the offensive end with an array of postups and jumpers for 18 points, leading the Timberwolves to a 64-61 halftime lead. Neither team could assert its imprint on the game and traded runs back and forth.
The biggest difference was the Timberwolves’ ability to capitalize off the Nuggets’ miscues; they scored 12 points off turnovers and, at one point, opened up a nine-point lead.
It wasn’t the offense that was the problem for Denver. Will Barton scored a team-high 13 and Jokic and Beasley had 12 each over the first two quarters, while Morris dished out six assists.