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Nuggets beat Rockets in Popeye Jones’ head coaching debut



HOUSTON – It didn’t matter to Rayjon Tucker that he met his new Nuggets teammates Friday afternoon. When he saw Facu Campazzo splayed on the baseline after taking a charge, Tucker bolted off the bench to lift his colleague up.

Such is the state of the Nuggets, who despite four coaches and four players in the NBA’s health and safety protocol, pounded the Rockets, 124-111, in Popeye Jones’ head coaching debut Saturday.

“We were crazy,” Campazzo said of the postgame scene. “We throw water. We were very happy for him because we’ve got a lot of injured players … Somehow, we gotta hide that with more unity.”

The longtime assistant, who joined the staff this season, filled in for fellow assistant David Adelman, who had filled in for Nuggets coach Michael Malone before him.

“I’m blessed to be a part of this organization,” Jones said after the game. “You come in as the only new guy, and guys are trying to get a feel for you. … To come into this culture, and all these guys are such good guys, man. They don’t complain, they work hard every day. Like I told them, ‘You established this culture. I’m blessed just to be a part of it.’”

The piecemeal Nuggets picked apart the Rockets, who didn’t make good on their New Year’s resolution to defend.

Instead, led by a career-high 22 points and 12 assists from Campazzo, along with 24 points and 11 rebounds from Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets won their third consecutive game with a trip to Dallas on tap for Monday.

Tucker, who was one of two 10-day hardship exceptions the Nuggets added in the past day, offered his trademark defense to Jones’ winning outfit. The team rejoiced when he buried a 3-pointer, his only basket, late in the fourth quarter.

The other 10-day addition, Carlik Jones, only joined the team on Saturday.

Aaron Gordon added 16 points and seven boards, and Will Barton logged 12 points and six assists. The Nuggets blasted the Rockets inside, with a 62-42 advantage on points in the paint.

While the mood correlated with the Nuggets’ sizable margin, injured Nuggets Michael Porter Jr. and Markus Howard were also in Houston with the team to enjoy the rout. Howard, who hurt his leg two weeks ago vs. Minnesota, even got shots up before the game.

Saturday’s win was such a feel-good effort for the Nuggets that even reserve Bol Bol saw significant rotation minutes. He had 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field.

Much to the chagrin of Denver’s depleted coaching staff, Jokic picked up his fourth foul less than five minutes into the third quarter. It didn’t matter. At that point, the Nuggets had a comfortable 85-60 lead and were cruising.

More specifically, they were playing for each other. When JaMychal Green found Austin Rivers on a baseline cut for a two-handed jam, the entire bench stood in unison. During a timeout only moments later, Rivers walked to the bench with a grin, knowing how seldom those dunks had come this season.

Even though news broke on Saturday afternoon, Jones got the assignment on Friday via Malone.

“He gave me a call and said, ‘I got confidence in you,’” Jones recalled. “’Be yourself. You’re a positive guy. You played. You know what you’re doing.’”

Devising the game-plan, predicated on containing Houston’s guards and keeping them out of the paint, was a collaborative effort among the coaches that were available, Jones said.



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