The Denver Nuggets expected a return on their investment when they re-signed point guard Nick Van Exel for $55 million over five years.
Van Exel made them look good so far with 34 points, and George McCloud hit a 3-pointer with 49 seconds left in overtime as the Denver Nuggets defeated Phoenix 107-102 Tuesday night in their regular-season debut at the Pepsi Center.
McCloud, who signed as a free agent after spending two seasons with the Suns, had 16 points and nine rebounds. Van Exel hit five 3-pointers and added nine assists and nine rebounds for the Nuggets, who ended a nine-game losing streak to the Suns, dating to Dec. 23, 1996 in Phoenix.
"Well, you know this franchise is dear to me and I don't enjoy us kind of being the laughingstock of Denver and becoming the butt of NBA jokes," said Dan Issel, who coached the Nuggets for the first time since resigning on Jan. 15, 1995. "We've got too much hard work invested in this franchise. This is one win."
"We haven't arrived on the scene yet. But if we play like we did in the second half, we can be a pretty darn good basketball team."
Tom Gugliotta had 22 points and 19 rebounds, Rodney Rogers scored 21 points and Cliff Robinson added 20 for Phoenix, which played without Rex Chapman and Penny Hardaway. The guards were suspended for their involvement in an altercation during a preseason game on Oct. 21 in Miami.
"We made plenty of bad playlate in the game," Phoenix coach Danny Ainge said. "We had a six-point lead in overtime and let Van Exel drive to the basket with nobody around him and he got a free throw for a three-point play."
Phoenix led 102-96 on 3-pointers by Robinson and Rogers, but Van Exel got a layup and free throw and Raef LaFrentz finished a fast break with a layup to cut the lead to 102-101 with 1:55 left in overtime.
Rogers came up short on a layup with a minute to go before McCloud hit a 3-pointer from the right wing. Van Exel hit a free throw with 22 seconds left and LaFrentz sealed the win with a free throw after stealing an inbounds pass with 17 seconds to go.
"I was concentrating and hoping for an opportunity to get a good look at it, and I did," McCloud said. "I made the shot, we went up two."
The Suns took a 77-72 lead into the fourth quarter and extended it to 84-72 on Robinson's 3-pointer and a free throw by Jason Kidd. The Nuggets, who missed their first five shots of the period, didn't score until Ron Mercer hit two free throws with 8:21 remaining.
LaFrentz's 3-pointer closed the gap to 92-85 with 4:01 left. Kidd hit a pullup jumper with 2:03 to go, but Van Exel hit a 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining as the Nuggets got within 94-89. Van Exel then scored on a layup, and after Gugliotta missed two free throws, Van Exel tied the game 94-94 with another 3-pointer with 47 seconds left.
Gugliotta who went 0-for-5 from the free-throw line and Van Exel each missed 22-foot jumpers in the last 35 seconds of regulation.
"I had the free throws at the end of the game to seal it and I didn't make them," Gugliotta said. "You don't like to see that because it's an easy shot."
Trailing 61-47 at halftime, Denver outscored Phoenix 16-10 in the first eight minutes of the third quarter to get within 71-63. Van Exel had a 3-pointer and a basket in the final 2:16, but Gugliotta's tip gave the Suns a five-point lead after three quarters.
McCloud, who had 11 points in the first half, hit a 15-foot jumper with 9:01 left to give Denver its last lead of the half, 33-32. Rookie Shawn Marion's layup began a 24-8 run for Phoenix that included two 3-pointers by Rogers.
Luc Longley's reverse layup and free throw gave the Suns their biggest lead of the half, 59-43. Van Exel got four of his 14 first-half points in the last 1:21.
"This win is special for Antonio (McDyess) and for George," Issel said. "They both really wanted it badly. but it's special for all of us. This franchise needed that."
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