The Denver Nuggets defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 105-91 on Tuesday night, claiming first place in the Western Conference playoff standings in the process.
Nikola Jokić produced a unique triple-double, scoring 13 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, and dishing 13 assists. Joker finished the game with a plus-minus of +13 as well. Ja Morant had 35 points and 10 assists on the other side but finished the game with seven turnovers. The Nuggets had their best defensive performance of the season, limiting the Grizzlies to just four made three-pointers and forcing 16 turnovers.
Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. against an elite opponent, the Nuggets knew they’d have their hands full with the Grizzlies on Tuesday night. So, Michael Malone made a bold move by starting rookie Christian Braun, electing to play without a true point guard in the starting unit. It turned out to be a great decision as the Nuggets blitzed the Grizzlies 35-14 in the first quarter, effectively ending the game with three quarters to play. The Grizzlies hung around and narrowed the margin throughout the evening, but Denver never relinquished the lead and forced garbage time at the end.
It helps when Jokić is making passes like these with regularity.
Here are my primary takeaways from the Nuggets primetime matchup against the Grizzlies on Tuesday night:
It takes everybody against good teams
Often, Nikola Jokić is the player leading the way for the Nuggets in every single category. He’s an incredible player and has the ball in his hands as a result. Without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the expectation was that Jokić would shoulder an even heavier burden.
Instead, the entire team stepped up and played great team basketball. Six players scored in double figures with Gordon leading the way with his 24 points. Jeff Green was close, chipping in nine points and an absolutely ludicrous dunk.
“That was crazy,” said Christian Braun to media postgame. “That might have been the best dunk I’ve ever seen in person.”
It wasn’t a great offensive night, but several players contributed to what turned out to be a low scoring affair. Every player in the rotation scored and had at least one assist and one rebound. Orbiting around Jokić, the entire rotation found ways to contribute from small ways to big ways. The fast break points, the free throws, the paint attack, and the perimeter shooting all lined up for the Nuggets tonight. It was perhaps the best performance of the season.
Defense locks in
91 points allowed is no joke. Though the Grizzlies missed some open shots and didn’t take advantage of opportunities here or there, it’s hard to fake good defense by allowing just 91 points.
Among the key defensive indicators were the Nuggets out-rebounding the Grizzlies 48-42, allowing just seven offensive rebounds to a team featuring Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke.
“We’re 16-4 when we out-rebound our opponent, and that is a great rebounding team,” Malone emphasized.
With Braun starting in place of Jamal Murray, the Nuggets four starters around Jokić were Braun, Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Aaron Gordon. That’s one of the best defensive quartets the Nuggets have ever put around their superstar, and it makes life easier for Jokić when the perimeter players are constantly making hustle plays.
Off the bench, Zeke Nnaji played a short stint at center instead of DeAndre Jordan. The Nuggets maintained a 70.8 defensive rating with him on the floor in just 11 minutes. The offense wasn’t good during that stretch, but the Nuggets treaded water due to a strong defensive effort from the bench. That’s notable given Denver’s bench defensive struggles so far this year.
Perhaps this could be a great building block for the defense heading into a difficult stretch. 11 of Denver’s next 12 games come against playoff opponents, and the defense will surely be tested.
“You’ve shown me you can do it,” Malone said of Denver’s defensive performance. “Do it every night.”
Christian Braun breakout game?
The rookie wing found out he was going to be starting 20 minutes ahead of the game, according to Braun postgame. He went over the scouting report again and put up a stellar defensive performance against Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. Morant had great individual numbers, but the Nuggets made life difficult for him, forcing seven turnovers and cutting off the other opportunities for teammates with haste.
Braun was a big part of that, using his quick feet and fluidity on the perimeter to wall off Morant from the paint. It wasn’t perfect, but those possessions combined with Braun’s normal hustle in transition, on rotations, and as a cutter really stood out.
“I thought Christian had some really good possessions guarding [Ja],” Malone shared. “For a young player to guard a guy like that and kind of hold his own. No one stops Ja Morant, but I thought Christian had some decent possessions out there, and I’m really proud of the work he put forth tonight.”
Perhaps this is a sign of things to come for the rookie. He’s been coming off the bench for awhile and has played a relatively consistent role in the last few games. When Murray and Porter return, the Nuggets will have to continue to find time for one of the best young perimeter defenders in the NBA.
View more on Youtube Game Recap: Nuggets 105, Grizzlies 91
The Nuggets defeated the Grizzlies, 105-91. Nikola Jokic led the way for the Nuggets with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists, his 6th triple-double of the season and 82nd of his career, while Aaron Gordon added 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the victory. Ja Morant tallied 35 points and 10 assists for the Grizzlies in the losing effort. The Nuggets improve to 19-11, while the Grizzlies fall to 19-11.