Jamal Murray was in a zone early in Tuesday’s game in Milwaukee, and so were the Nuggets.
Facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s two-time Most Valuable Player who entered the game having scored 35 or more points in four straight, and the league’s top offense, Denver coach Michael Malone remembered something one of his coaching mentors used to say.
“I work for Pete Gillen many years ago in college — Providence College and University of Virginia — and he would always say ‘If the opposing team’s offense is better than our defense, we’ve got to junk the game up. We’ve got to try something different,’ and that was kind of our approach going in,” Malone said. “They’re a hell of an offensive team, playing at a high level. Let’s try to take them out of their comfort zone and make them do something else, and tonight it worked.”
In the 128-97 win over the Bucks, Murray scored 18 of his 24 points, including a circus layup, in the first half when the Nuggets used a 2-3 or 2-1-2 zone defense for extended stretches. The Nuggets went zone early when Antetokounmpo (27 points) got to the rim seemingly at will, and Michael Porter Jr., his assignment when the Nuggets started in man-to-man, picked up a couple of early fouls.
“It had the impact that we wanted it to have, just kind of make them think about their plays and taking a few seconds off the shot clock or take quick shots,” Murray said before adding the team’s rebounding edge helped as well.
“It was a great overall defensive game, limiting them to less than 100 points.”
After the hot start, the Bucks cooled off, and Denver led by 14 at the end of the first quarter after Murray hit a pull-up jumper before the first-quarter buzzer sounded.
“I thought we played with great pace in the first half, especially,” Murray said. “With all those missed shots that they had, we got out and ran, got some quick buckets and changed the tempo on them a little bit.”
The Nuggets kept the lead at 14 by halftime, extended it to 19 on Zeke Nnaji’s tip-in in the final second of the third quarter and kept increasing the margin of victory deep into the fourth quarter behind a hot close from PJ Dozier, who finished with 19 points. Malone said he had to ditch the zone defense in the second half, once Milwaukee started to find success, but by then the damage was done.
“I think the zone kind of threw them off a little bit,” Will Barton III said. “I think it kind of rattled them and bythe time they got comfortable, we kind of built a big lead. I think we were flying around and helping each other.”
Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 37 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, good for the 25-year-old’s 50th career triple-double.
“It just speaks to his greatness,” Malone said. “The guy doesn’t get fatigued, doesn’t get tired.”
Barton added 14 points, Michael Porter Jr. added 11 and Monte Morris finished with 10, putting all five starters in double figures.
“I can go down the line. Everyone that’s getting in the game is trying to impact the game any way they can,” Murray said.
“We got a lot of guys who can hoop, and we’re making the most of our opportunities.”
The result of the zone defense, Murray’s hot start, another big Jokic night and a 28:10 assist-to-turnover ratio had Denver’s coach feeling good heading into the team’s final game of the first half Thursday at Indiana.
“I think it’s definitely up there for best wins of the year,” Malone said.
“That’s a really complete game for our group.”