Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series looking back at the 2016-17 Nuggets season.
PART 2: The London Game
On Jan. 7, the Nuggets postgame locker room was as somber as ever. They had just suffered through a 121-106 loss at Oklahoma City, their fifth-straight defeat. After pulling themselves to within striking distance of .500 a week earlier, the Nuggets were now nine games under.
“We’re such a young team that is trying to find its way,” coach Michael Malone said after that game. “I have to continue to work with these guys to help them along the way, and that’s what I’m gonna do. … We just have to try to find a way to get over the hump and feel good about ourselves. When we do that, I think we can string a couple of wins together.”
Healing started on a double-decker bus.
The run-up to the Nuggets Jan. 12 game against the Indiana Pacers in London had a mini-training camp feel. The Nuggets were once again away from home, self-contained. And though unlike Omaha, there were plenty of activities and distractions, the practices felt a lot like those in Nebraska. There was bounce and pep and more than enough spirit to go around. The language coming from those sessions sounded a whole lot like those in the preseason. The question, however, was could any of it translate on the court for a Nuggets team that was in desperate need of a victory?
In perhaps their most dominant 48 minutes of the season, that answer was a resounding “yes.”
The fans at the O2 Arena in London were treated to some old-school Nuggets basketball. They ran at a breakneck pace. The ball whipped from side-to-side on offense. They were deadly from 3-point range and surgical at getting into – and finishing – in the paint. The Pacers knew the Nuggets offense could possibly be a handful, but no one saw a 140 points coming.
Yet that’s what happened.
The first period gave an appearance that the contest would be nip-and-tuck all day long. The Nuggets’ biggest lead was five points, but Indiana closed it to one at the end of the period. The Pacers took a one-point lead of their own at the start of the second quarter.
But then an avalanche of points buried the Pacers. The Nuggets outscored them 37-25 the rest of the second quarter to take an 11-point lead into halftime. The knockout blow came in the third, where the Nuggets outscored Indiana 39-20 to lead 106-76, effectively putting the game away. The Nuggets shot an eye-popping 73 percent in that quarter.
When the dust settled on the eventual 140-112 victory, the Nuggets had shot 57.1 percent; made 52 field goals – a season-high at the time; dished out 37 assists, which remained a season high; scored 70 points in the paint; and had 29 fast break points. And it was the first glimpse that Nikola Jokic (22 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) might be a triple-double threat. Team-wide, they were big-time numbers in a blowout win from a group that needed it.
“Guys were able to spend time together, and grow and bond as a team,” Malone said. “And then to go out and play as well as we played was the icing on the cake. My hope is we can continue to play at that level.”
For the next big chunk of the season, Malone would largely get that wish granted.
Read Part One: Sorting Things Out
Next in the series: Fifty-one Days in Eighth.