Second unit stands strong as Denver Nuggets win showdown with Philadelphia 76ers
The mystery of managing the Nuggets’ second unit has taken quite a few twists and turns this season before Michael Malone and the front office apparently cracked the case.
Injuries clouded the situation earlier in the season, as Malone tinkered with the reserves to inconsistent results. Since the additions of sharpshooter Bryn Forbes and DeMarcus Cousins, a true back-up option at center, and Bones Hyland being moved to the point guard of the second unit, the questions changed. After Monday’s 114-110 win over the 76ers, it wasn’t a matter of who should play but how long they should play in crunch time.
“I rode those guys deep into the fourth quarter because they were playing so well,” Malone said ofHyland,Forbes, Austin Rivers, JaMychal Green andCousins. “That’s the biggest challenge, when you have a bench unit in the fourth quarter of a big game playing great basketball. You’re always saying, ‘When do I get my guys back in?’ Because if you sit them (the starters) too long … we can’t afford for you to warm up here, every possession matters. Tonight, they were incredible.”
The reserves started the fourth quarter in a seven-point hole. Rivers hit a 3 and Green came up with a tip-dunk before Cousins hit consecutive 3-pointers to tie the game.
Forbes finished a finger roll to give the Nuggets a two-point lead before Hyland hit the first of his four fourth-quarter 3-pointers with 7:19 remaining.
“They played really good, their energy. They play for each other. They run the floor well,” star center Nikola Jokic said.
“The whole second unit was amazing.”
Jokic and starting point guard Monte Morris, the first two starters to sub back in, returned to a four-point lead with 5:36 to play. Will Barton replacedRivers soon after, leaving Hyland and Green out there.
Hyland stole the show, finishing with 21 points, four rebounds and two assists, while Green made five of his six shots in a 10-point eight-rebound performance. Green’s final two makes come from the left wing and gave the Nuggets a four-point advantage inside the final four minutes.
“Our bench was incredible tonight. Bones Hyland, I think he had about 500 people representing his hometown here tonight, and he showed out. He had just a great game, hit some big, big shots for us,” Malone said.
“DeMarcus Cousins hit some big 3s, and I thought JaMychal Green, our defensive player of the game, was just fantastic.”
Cousins added eight points, three rebounds and four assists and teamed with Green to show some toughness on a couple of occasions. Cousins frustrated James Harden after hedging a screen with seven minutes left. Both players earned technical fouls after Harden took exception to Cousins taking an extra swipe at the ball. Cousins stepped into the mix and smiled in Harden’s face.
After Green’s final made shot, he took on the unenviable task of drawing a charge on Joel Embiid, who’s listed at 7 feet and 280 pounds, with 3:37 left.
“They bring not just skill and talent, but they bring size, physicality and an edge. That felt like a playoff game. That was like a game you’re going to see late in the playoffs where every possession matters and physicality matters,” Malone said. “To have two guys with the experience that both JaMychal and DeMarcus have and (they’re) not afraid to mix it up, that’s invaluable for us, especially when you surround them with, you know, we have Bryn. We have Bones. We have Austin.”
A possession after the charge, Green had to slide over and help on a rolling Embiid. Green went up and tried to block the shot but made contact with Embiid’s upper body, knocking Philadelphia’s star off balance en route to a hard landing. Denver’s veteran forward was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul after review but disagreed with the ruling.
“I wasn’t trying to send a message at all. All I was doing was playing basketball. I didn’t think I deserved the flagrant. I thought it was a basketball play. I didn’t do anything dirty,” Green said.
“I went to let him know it wasn’t anything or malicious or dirty about that play.”
Green would go on to play the entire fourth quarter and produced a clutch steal in the final minute with the Nuggets up four.
“No matter how big an opponent is … I know he has a big heart,” Jokic said. “He’s a fighter.”
In nearly 60 minutes of playing time together, the new bench unit is outscoring opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball reference, and the group will continue to take steps forward when the Nuggets continue a three-game road trip Wednesday against former Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr. and the Wizards in Washington D.C.
“The reason our bench is a lot more consistent and effective is that those guys are playing together every night,” Malone said. “We have a set rotation when we’re healthy, and those guys are learning how to play not only with each other but off of each other.”