Try to assign in nil slice by index - you will get "panic: runtime error: index out of range" (example: https://play.golang.org/p/-XHh1jNyn5g)
The only reason why append function works with nil, is that append function can do reallocation for the given slice. For example, if you trying to to append 6th element to slice of 5 elements with current capacity 5, it will create the new array with new capacity, copy all the info from old one, and swap the data array pointers in the given slice. In my understanding, it is just golang implementation of dynamic arrays.
So, the nil slice is just a special case of slice with not enough capacity, so it would be reallocated on any append operation.
More details on https://blog.golang.org/go-slices-usage-and-internals