The Denver Nuggets dropped another close game at home, falling to the Memphis Grizzlies 102-101. Most of the damage was done in the first quarter as Memphis raced out to a 37-23 lead, but Denver reeled them back in over the next three quarters and finally took the lead again briefly in second half. Some poor decisions and missed shots haunted the Nuggets in that final stretch and proved to make the hole just too deep to climb out of. Memphis shot 50% from the field and were led by Marc Gasol's 27 points and Mike Conley with 20.
Lineup choices were especially curious for the Nuggets down the stretch, as Kenneth Faried put up 17 and 12 through three quarters but didn't play the last 15 minutes of the game. Nikola Jokic had some brilliant play in the beginning of the third quarter but sat the entire fourth until Lauvergne fouled out. Danilo Gallinari got into early foul trouble but still wound up with 17 points, while Emmanuel Mudiay scored all 14 of his points in the second half but had 7 of his 8 assists in the first.
The Big Three of the Grizzlies (Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph) opened the game scoring their first 6 points, and the Grizzlies made their first 7 shots overall. Nikola Jokic and Danilo Gallinari kept the Nuggets in it early with transition buckets and a Gallo 3. Gallo and Jokic each picked up two quick fouls though and had to check out halfway through the first quarter. No one else on the Nuggets had the shooting touch and Denver trailed 21-13 after a pair of Gasol foul shots.
Harris had a beautiful fake-and-drive for 2 after missing one early, but was 1-for-5 in the quarter. After Mudiay missed a pair of free throws Memphis extended the lead to 26-15. The Nuggets built a brick house on the rim for the quarter while Memphis missed only 3 shots over the first 12 minutes. Nurkic made a brief appearance, got 3 fouls in three minutes, and was never seen again. Sean Kilpatrick fought hard for a steal to give the fans something to cheer for at the end of the quarter, but Memphis scored a first quarter season-high in points and shot 80% from the field to take a 37-23 lead after one.
Joffrey Lauvergne and Kilpatrick hit threes in the opening minutes of the second but the Nuggets couldn't make up any ground with their defense and trailed 46-32. Gallo and Faried returned with 7 minutes left and both men hit buckets to cut the lead to 9 before a medical timeout for an official who twisted an ankle interruptd the actiion. Denver's perimeter game remained soft, but the Nuggets kept firing away and hustling for offensive rebounds. No one could stop Zach Randolph inside, however, as he scored 10 in the first half. An incredible chase-down block by Faried led to a Gallinari 3 and from there out the crowd was completely into the game, making the loss all the worse. Mudiay set Faried up for a pair of paint buckets to cut it to a 52-48 Memphis but Conley nailed a 3 at the buzzer to make it a 7 point game at halftime. The Nuggets defense really helped them out at the end of the second quarter.
After starting 16/21 from the field, the #Nuggets held Memphis to 4/17 the rest of the half— Chris Dempsey (@dempseypost) January 22, 2016
Here's that Faried block and Gallo 3 (courtesy of @The_NGUYENNER):
Mudiay and Jokic came out on fire to start the third quarter. Mudiay hit a pair of buckets and the Nuggets tied it up with a Jokic 3 point play on a Mudiay assist. And then Jokic did this:
Behind the back no-look under the bucket, are you kidding me? The Grizzlies and Nuggets traded buckets for the next couple of minutes, but Mudiay's 8 points in the first 4 minutes of the 3rd quarter kept the Nuggets up 63-62. The Nuggets kept up the pressure in the paint (20 points in the paint in the last 18 game minutes) But Memphis kept going inside as well.
The big boys were getting physical when Randolph threw Faried to the ground with Faried going for the offensive rebound and Z-Bo earned a flagrant 1. Faried made one of two and Harris hit a three to raise the lead to 3. Mark Gasol went to work down low, though, getting points and fouls on both Jokic and Lauvergne, and Memphis retook the lead at 77-71. Gallo finally got his first foul call with 2 minutes to go in the 3rd. He made four free throws but missed the three at the end of the quarter which left the Nuggets trailing by 2, 79-77.
The Grizzlies started the Key Bank key quarter playing tough defense and forced two turnovers on Barton while they pushed the lead to 6. The Grizzlies also fouled 5 times in the first two-plus minutes, though, setting the tone for the rest of the quarter. Denver's only actual shot attempts were from the outside, however, as the offensive setups were lethargic and tentative from the bench players. Darrell Arthur even got a technical for complaining about fouls. Denver only made 1-of-6 shots through 6 minutes of the 4th, but Mudiay's 3 brought the Nuggets within 2 and Joffrey's layup tied it at 91. Denver's offensive stars, Gallo and Barton, could not make shots, but their defense kept them in it for a scoreless stretch until Barton sank a three with just over 2 minutes remaining. Barton's free throws and a steal had the Nuggets even at 96 with one minute to go as the refs started whistling everything for both teams. Barton nailed a pretty stop-drive on Gasol to put Denver up 1 and it looked like Denver might complete the comeback.
It was not to be. A three-point play on a Gasol pick-and-roll fouled Lauverne out of the game but failing to prevent the layup was a crucial error. It put Memphis up 100-98 with 12 seconds to go. The play out of the time out was a turnaround 3 with 4 seconds to go by Gallo for no apparent reason that barely drew rim, and the ensuing Conley foul shots negated Mudiay's final 3 as Memphis snuck out of the building with a 102-101 win.
- Mudiay's tremendous passing in the first half and fearless scoring pressure in the second.
- Jokic showing off his complete array of skills, from behind-the-back dribbling to his terrific hands and soft touch.
- Barton's 4th quarter re-emergence after spending most of the game (and the month) on a milk carton
- Sean Kilpatrick's willingness to shoot and drive on offense might get him another 10-day contract.
- That first quarter.
- The bench vets. Arthur had 4 points and 4 fouls, while Foye netted one assist in 21 minutes.
- Gary Harris's shooting (3 of 9), though he was a willing assist man with 4.
- Big man fouls. Lauvergne fouled out and Nurkic snagged 3 in 3 minutes of lazy game action.
- Coaching decisions.
I want to expand on that last one a bit. There were some inexplicable coaching decisions in this game. As I said in the beginning, Kenneth Faried had 17 points and 12 rebounds and was benched for the last 15 minutes of the game. Jokic sliced and diced the interior defense of the Grizzlies in the 3rd quarter and only saw the floor in the fourth because Joffrey fouled out. A small note on Jokic, for a Nuggets team that struggled to score for most of the fourth quarter:
The Nuggets are 13.3 points better per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor this season, Best of any rotation player outside of Nurkic.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 22, 2016
Joffrey fouled out on a play where the smart foul (to prevent the bucket and just give up the two shots) lets Denver win with a made field-goal instead of a 3, but he apparently didn't know that. The Nuggets got Memphis into the bonus just two minutes into the fourth, but only attempted two free throws over the last 6 minutes of the game. Memphis banged inside, got nine free throws and won by just one point. And the play for Gallo, designed out of a timeout to win us the game, was an off-balance heave from three with several seconds left on the clock, no movement under the basket to go for the tie, and planned for someone having a cold second half and who shot 5-for-15 on the night (3 of 9 from deep).
Malone can talk all he wants about the defense and the effort, but late in a close game is where coaches have to put their best players in position to succeed. Malone did not do that tonight. It was a good, hard-fought game for those last three quarters, but the Nuggets grab another moral victory and chalk one up in the loss column tonight