With the game on the line, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone put the ball in the hands of Emmanuel Mudiay and let the rookie point guard show that he was up to the challenge.
Mudiay tallied four of Denver’s final six points and came up with two key blocks in the game’s final 2:02 as the Nuggets earned their first win of the season inside the Pepsi Center with a 108-104 decision over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night.
The seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft hit a fadeaway jumper with 56.1 seconds left to give the Nuggets a 104-100 edge over their Northwest Division rivals then sealed the game with a pair of free throws with 18.1 seconds remaining. It was part of a night that saw Mudiay tally a career-high 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, and two fourth-quarter blocks of Portland’s Damian Lillard.
“I haven’t been easy on him,” Malone said of his relationship with Mudiay. “He grew up tonight. He showed his growth in the fourth quarter by making big plays on offense and defense.”
After logging just seven points in the first half, Mudiay found his rhythm in the third quarter, equaling his first-half production with seven points. The rookie said his second-half success was, in part, to a different outlook on the court.
“I feel like I’ve been too robotic at times,” Mudiay said. “My confidence level is getting higher and it helps when I play my game. You have to go with what the defense gives you. When I’m aggressive and not playing like a robot, good things happen for me and my teammates. If we continue to play team basketball like that and everybody doing our job, we’re going to be fine.”
Mudiay was one of six Nuggets to score in double figures, with JJ Hickson leading the Denver charge with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
“It’s easier to drive when the paint is open and JJ rolling (on pick-and-rolls) makes things easier,” Mudiay said. “JJ was huge tonight. Energy is contagious and I think we had a lot of that tonight.”
While Lillard finished with 30 points to pace the Blazers, it was Mudiay’s two late-game blocks of the All-Star point guard that had the crowd buzzing. Lillard would account for just four points in the fourth quarter and miss all five of his field goal attempts in the period.
“He put together a complete game tonight,” Malone said of Mudiay. “He’s getting there. I have to keep reminding everyone he’s 19 years old. I loved the plays he made late in the game. I put the ball in his hands. He wasn’t scared. He wanted it.”
With the win, Denver improved to 3-4 on the young season and elevated its home record to 1-2. Portland fell to 4-4 with its second loss in a back-to-back schedule following the Blazers’ fourth-quarter collapse on Sunday night in a 120-103 home loss to the Detroit Pistons.
“It’s a big relief for us to win at home,” Malone said. “I didn’t want that to become a mental thing for us. How we played out there tonight is who we need to be.”
The Nuggets continue their three-game homestand by hosting the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.