Denver Coach Mike Malone was more impressed with the way his team played defense to close out Sacramento than he was beating his former club for the second time in six days.
With the Nuggets maintaining their hold on the final playoff spot in the West, that makes sense.
Former University of Kentucky star Jamal Murray scored 11 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter and Denver held on to beat Sacramento 105-92 on Saturday night.
“That’s back-to-back games where we’ve had pretty good defense,” Malone said. “If that can continue, we’re going to give ourselves a real chance down the stretch here. Our guys know it’s now or never. We can’t wait. If we want to be a consistent team that can win, it has to be defense.”
Gary Harris had 24 points, Nikola Jokic added 20 points and 14 rebounds and Danilo Gallinari scored 15 as the Nuggets beat the Kings to even the season series between the teams after dropping the first two games.
It was also a notable win for Malone, his second over the Kings after going 0-4 against Sacramento.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, the monkey’s off your back.’ There was never a monkey on my back,” Malone said. “I love Sacramento. I’m just happy that we won.”
Denver led by as much as 14 before Sacramento pulled within two at 79-77 with nine minutes remaining. Murray made a 3-pointer and Harris added two free throws following a steal.
After Willie Cauley-Stein scored for the Kings, Murray made two free throws and a layup to help the Nuggets pull away.
More importantly for Denver, the Nuggets increased their lead to two games over Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.
“It’s not about making the playoffs,” said Mason Plumlee, who had eight points, seven rebounds and eight assists. “We want to be playing well going into the playoffs and we want to have a rhythm and be hitting our stride. This has to be more of the norm.”
Buddy Hield had 17 points and six rebounds for Sacramento, which lost its eighth straight. The Kings are 1-8 since trading All-Star DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans.
“We’re still trying to figure everything out,” said Skal Labissiere, who had two dunks early in the fourth quarter for Sacramento. “It’s been a tough stretch. It’s just a matter of learning how to finish games with us.”
The Nuggets beat the Kings 108-96 in Denver on March 6 behind a career-high 36 points from Wilson Chandler. This time, Chandler was limited to six points on 3-of-13 shooting in the rematch, but it hardly mattered.
Sacramento shot 39.5 percent in the first half and trailed the entire second half.
Denver led by 14 early despite shooting five of 17 beyond the arc in the first half. Jokic provided a big lift inside and nearly had a double-double before the break while helping Denver to a 54-44 lead.
Plumlee’s all-around game – one of his best since arriving in a trade from Portland on Feb. 13 – had some joking in the Nuggets locker room after the game that Malone might contemplate starting the 6-foot-11-inch forward at point guard soon. “No, I don’t believe that,” Plumlee said with a laugh. “(Sacramento) tried to pressure a lot of passes and a lot of dribble-handoffs, and guys made good cuts.”
Nuggets: Harris had nine points, including a dunk, a 3-pointer and two backdoor layups on bounce passes from Plumlee as part of an 11-3 run in the third quarter. He finished 10 of 15 from the floor. … Malone coached the Kings for one year before getting fired 24 games into the 2014-15 season.
Kings: Tyreke Evans scored 16 points after being held out a night earlier, a regular routine for the veteran forward who is not playing in back-to-back games this season. … Former five-time All-Star and Sacramento favorite Chris Webber attended the game and sat courtside next to owner Vivek Ranadive.