By Morris Phillips
The Sacramento Kings may have run wild in the first half on Wednesday night, but the third quarter belonged to the Denver Nuggets–with Isaiah Thomas in his debut, without Coach Mike Malone who was ejected, and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic reaching into his bag of tricks.
The Nuggets overcame an 11-point halftime deficit in the first six minutes of the third quarter and held on for a 120-118 win over the Kings.
Both teams concluded play prior to the All-Star Break, with the Nuggets moving within two games of the conference-leading Warriors, and the Kings temporarily falling out of the eighth and final playoff spot by losing while the Clippers blew past the Suns, 134-107 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Kings started the evening four games over .500 for the first time this season, and they hardly looked satisfied, shooting a high percentage from the start on their way to an 11-point lead after a quarter. Buddy Hield put up 11 of his team-high 25 points in the opening frame that end with Sacramento leading 41-30.
The Kings continued to roll into the second quarter, and with their lead holding at eight prior to the half, Malone was at his boiling point. When Malik Beasley took a physical path to the basket without a foul call, Malone went from coaching to observing instaneously. Two technicals sent the defensive-minded coach to the showers.
“I think our players know me, they know who I am,” Malone said of his ejection. “I am a fighter, I am a competitor. I didn’t like some of the calls that were not being called and I am going to stick up for my players.”
Denver’s third quarter response was an example of why and how quickly they’ve vaulted to the top of the Western standings this season. With Jokic the primary ballhandler, the Denver offense turned poetic, a parade of driving, cutting and passing with the 6’11” center as the hub. Jokic’s consecutive assists on baskets by Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley brought the Nuggets within 85-83 with 3:09 left in the third.
Isaiah Thomas got into the act later in the third with eight, quick points in the final two minutes plus that allowed the Nuggets to open the fourth period with a 93-91 lead. Thomas, seeing his first action in Denver uniform, missed the first 56 games of the season rehabbing his hip.
When asked what type of impact Thomas will have on the Nuggets and their post-season aspirations, Monte Morris, a player who likely will lose minutes to Thomas, was quick to chime in.
“13 minutes out there (and score) eight points quick.” Morris said. “That just shows you right there what type of player he is.”
Jokic tipped in the game winner with 0.8 seconds remaining, which allowed enough time for a desperation shot from the Kings. Hield got a shot off that would have counted, but it merely grazed the front of the rim.
The Kings open the post All-Star break portion of the schedule in Oakland a week from Thursday against the Warriors.