Effort wasn’t the issue, but fatigue might have been a factor for the Kings as they concluded a three-game road trip with a 126-112 loss to the undefeated Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center.
Rookie forward Marvin Bagley III carved out a small slice of NBA history and Justin Jackson delivered his most encouraging performance of the season, but for others the energy seemed to be in shorter supply than the mile-high air outside the arena.
“It’s always hard to come to Denver and play,” Jackson said. “The altitude is pretty nuts out here. Did we get fatigued a little bit? We might have, and it’s pretty understandable. ... It’s Denver. The altitude is — you can push for so long, (but) eventually you’re going to get a little tired.”
Bagley became the first Sacramento rookie to post 20 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots in a game since Brian Grant in 1995. He is just the third rookie in NBA history to post those numbers in a backup role, joining John Salley (1987) and Stanley Roberts (1992).
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“I’ve got to give it my all every time I step out on the floor no matter what the score is,” Bagley said. “I love playing this game and I think I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t go as hard as I possibly could and still be a great teammate no matter what the circumstances may be.”
The Kings (1-3) faced four projected playoff teams over the first week of the season, opening at home against Utah before embarking on a three-game trip that took them from New Orleans to Oklahoma City and Denver. They will play their fifth game in eight days when they return to Sacramento to face the Memphis Grizzlies on the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday at Golden 1 Center.
“It’s the worst back-to-back you can get (when) one end of it is getting in and out of Denver,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said before the game. “It is what it is and we still want to get up and down the floor, keep some fresh legs and play fast.”
Going into the contest, the Kings were first in the NBA in pace and second in scoring, averaging 125.7 points per game — astounding given that they finished last in both categories in 2017-18. The Nuggets (4-0) were leading the league in scoring defense, holding opponents to 95.7 points per game.
The Kings became the first team to score 100 points against the Nuggets this season, but they didn’t look like themselves during key stretches.
Sacramento went into the game averaging 94 field-goal attempts per contest. In the opening period, they attempted just 21 shots and scored 26 points, their second-lowest scoring quarter of the season. They finished with a season-low 86 field-goal attempts, shooting 52.3 percent from the field while making 13 of 31 (41.9 percent) from 3-point range.
“I think we started off the first quarter kind of slow,” Bagley said. “There were some parts of the game where we had the pace. We picked it back up, got up and down and ran the floor, but we always talk about the start. When you start off like we did tonight — slow — you lose. That’s what happens every time we start off slow. We’ve just got to start off fast and keep going the rest of the game.”
Jamal Murray had 19 points, Gary Harris scored 18 and Paul Millsap 15 for the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic had 14 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
None of Joerger’s starters played more than 23 minutes. Frank Mason III came off the bench to post 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds. The starting guards, De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, combined for just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
Was that due to fatigue?
“Maybe a little bit,” Fox said. “Denver is always a tough place to play, but every team has to come here, so that can’t be an excuse. I’m just looking forward to tomorrow.”