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Y'know, come to think of it, maybe Byron Scott was right. Maybe Emmanuel Mudiay isn't a true point guard.
Maybe he's a center.
With just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Monday's meeting with the visiting Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets clung to a 100-97 lead after a split pair of free throws from power forward Kenneth Faried. A three-point advantage, however, isn't a whole lot of separation against a Blazers squad that had leapt out to a 4-3 record behind the hot-shooting, high-scoring backcourt of All-Star Damian Lillard and rising star C.J. McCollum. Denver needed to win several critical possessions to come away with its first home victory of the season, and when it came time to make the pivotal plays down the stretch, it was the Nuggets' 19-year-old point guard who stepped up.
First, Mudiay hung with Lillard step-for-step on a baseline drive that finished with a drop step and a spin into the paint for a layup try, which the 2015 first-round draft pick snuffed out with an emphatic rejection:
Then, after a pair of free throws by Denver's J.J. Hickson pushed the lead to five and a McCollum triple cut it down to two, Mudiay handled the rock on the left wing, going one-on-one with Lillard as the clock ticked down under 60 seconds remaining in regulation. Portland wanted to keep Mudiay out of the middle of the floor, shading him toward the baseline, where center Mason Plumlee waited to pounce.
Mudiay took what the defense gave him, gave Lillard something to think about the next time he's guarding the kid, and gave the Nuggets a little extra cushion in the closing minute:
The two teams traded free throws into the final half-minute, when Portland cut its deficit to two points following an Al-Farouq Aminu layup with 25 ticks remaining. The Blazers didn't hack immediately after the inbound pass, waiting until the ball got into the hands of Mudiay — a 57.4 percent free-throw shooter for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association last year, 12-for-19 at the stripe (63.2 percent) entering Monday, 3-for-5 in the game to that point — to foul and send the teenager in his seventh NBA game to the line for some high-pressure free throws. He calmly stepped to the line and splashed them both, putting Denver up 108-104 with 18 seconds left.
Needing a basket to get back within one possession and have a chance at equalizing in the closing seconds, Stotts relied on Lillard, as he has so many times over the past four seasons. For a second, it looked like Dame had caught Denver's defense napping, as he crossed from right to left and sailed through the lane like an arrow pointed directly at the front of the rim. But then, again, there was Mudiay to erase his trace:
Lillard corralled the loose ball and kicked it out to McCollum, but his 3-point try came up empty, as did Aminu's last-ditch jumper as time ran out, giving Denver a 108-104 win that improved Michael Malone's upstart Nuggets to 3-4 on the season while dropping Portland to .500 at 4-4.
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It was a stellar close to Mudiay's best outing as a pro. The rookie scored a career-high 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting and a 5-for-7 mark at the line to go with six rebounds, five assists, just two turnovers and those two critical blocks in 28 1/2 minutes of work, all performed without much of a safety net, as veteran backup point guard Jameer Nelson was a late scratch due to a lower back sprain.
It was an impressive performance for the 6-foot-5, 200-pound lead guard whom the Nuggets selected with the No. 7 overall pick in June's draft to be the new face of their franchise ... so, naturally, after it was done, he set about tearing himself a new one. From Harrison Wind of BSNDenver.com:
“I’m my hardest critic so I still feel like I can get some stuff better,” Mudiay said. “I missed two free throws, then two turnovers [which were] dumb turnovers, but at the same time we won, so that’s the main thing and we’re just going to try and build confidence going into Milwaukee.”
Mudiay was one of six Nuggets in double figures on Monday, led by Hickson, who scored a team-high 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting with 13 rebounds and three blocks. Faried added 17 points and eight boards, while combo guard Randy Foye chipped in 13 points (4-for-6 shooting, 3-for-4 from 3-point range) and three assists while pressed into duty as a de facto backup point guard.
Former Blazer Will Barton scored seven of his 11 points in the fourth quarter to help down his former mates. Rookie center Nikola Jokic continued to be a pleasant offensive surprise, scoring 10 points without missing a shot (3-for-3 from the field, 4-for-4 from the line) in 15 1/2 minutes of work.
That balanced attack produced 108 points on 51.9 percent shooting, and it started with Mudiay playing an engaged, aggressive brand of basketball that saw him look for opportunities to penetrate against Portland's permissive perimeter defense, probing in the pick-and-roll and collapsing coverages to create clean looks for his teammates. From Pat Graham of The Associated Press:
Earlier in the season, Mudiay was a little timid and afraid of making mistakes. Not against Portland. He was forward-thinking — just like Malone wants.
"When I'm aggressive and not playing like a robot, good things happen for me and my teammates," Mudiay said. "If we continue to play team basketball like that and everybody doing our job, we're going to be fine." [...]
"The energy was contagious tonight, between all my teammates," Mudiay said. "It was definitely good."
That marked a change from the Nuggets' first two contests at Pepsi Center, which saw them drop double-digit decisions to both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. (Neither of which, by the way, look like anything to be ashamed about at this point in the season, with Utah carrying over the Rudy Gobert-helmed defensive dominance it found last season and Minnesota looking like a force to be reckoned with thanks to consecutive No. 1 picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.)
After opening the home slate with a pair of big losses, though, Denver got on the board in front of the Mile High faithful on Monday, thanks in large part to the strong play — and surprising rim protection — of the guard they hope will lead them into the future.
"Emmanuel Mudiay, I think he really grew up tonight," Malone said after the win, according to Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post.
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