There's no secret to the Memphis Grizzlies. They have built the success of their franchise on hard nosed defense and solid post play that is the lynch pin of their methodical offense. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets just recently got their first win in the last 30 games where they scored less than 100 points. In order for the Nuggets to win they needed to make Memphis play an uptempo run and gun style to keep the Grizzlies out of their comfort zone. Memphis was able to turn back the clock and get vintage performances from Tony Allen and Zach Randolph which would ultimately spell doom for Denver.
The game started out very well for Denver. Darrell Arthur got the start because Kenneth Faried was in Denver for the birth of his child. Nikola Jokic came out as a man on fire, scoring Denver's first seven points and quickly leading the Nuggets to a 7-2 lead. Despite not having the size of Marc Gasol, Jokic was able to use his quickness and craftiness to make things difficult for Gasol on defense. Memphis took a timeout and upon return they rode the hot hand of Matt Barnes and the poor pick and roll play by Denver to regain the lead. After that timeout Denver had four quick turnovers, almost exclusively on PnR passes. Jokic's good work early didn't last as he quickly found himself in foul trouble, Jusuf Nurkic was the first man off the bench and as expected he was met with a smattering of boos from the Memphis crowd. Nurkic would not help his reputation in Memphis tonight. Jeff Green started heating up from beyond the arc but he was offset by Danilo Gallinari who quickly picked up the scoring load for Denver on his way to fourteen first quarter points. Coach Michael Malone would once again play the match ups and decided to go big to counter Randolph and Gasol by bringing in Joffrey Lauvergne to play next to Nurkic. Nurkic unfortunately found himself in foul trouble as well which led to the worst thing possible.
The second quarter started with J.J. Hickson checking in for Nurkic. At this point Randy Foye and Mike Miller were also in and Denver's offense was non existent. Memphis wasn't exactly lighting it up either and the 2nd quarter was a very ugly period. The sloppyness and poor shooting was compounded by some very ticky tack officiating, which seemed to also be pretty favored to the home team. Denver ended up dominating the baords for the night but during the period where Hickson was in the lack of size was really hurting them in the rebounding category. The offense was also incredibly ugly and at one point the Nuggets play was an isolation post up for Hickson against Gasol, perhaps the worst play in the playbook. Allen was playing outstanding defense for Memphis, wreaking havoc on Gary Harris in particular. The Grizzlies got on a 14-2 run and closed out the half up 49-37. Denver shot 3-21 in the second quarter for a total of seven points.
Once the third quarter began Denver had their bigs back in and started climbing their way back. Once again Gallinari was a key cog in the offense, scoring virtually at will at some points and getting lucky at others. A very sloppy sequence that involved about three missed shots and two turn overs in a row ended with Gallinari wide open for three which he buried with ease. He wasn't alone in the third though as first Harris started chipping in with some nice drives to the basket and then Arthur got absolutely white hot from mid range. Randolph cooled Denver off for a moment by hitting back to back jumpers but the energy was greatly improved for the Nuggets and they regained the lead at 64-62. Unfortunately, like so many games this season, poor close outs of the quarters were an issue and Memphis went on a mini 5-2 run to regain the lead at the end of three.
The fourth quarter started with more fouls on Denver and more Foye running the offense. The game could have got out of hand a lot quicker but Denver's dominant performance on the glass kept them in it. Will Barton was also doing his best but with Barton you get the good and bad. He was attacking the rim and some times getting easy buckets but other times ended up taking on three Grizzlies at a time. It was really all he could do though because the offense was completely stagnant with Foye at the point. Randolph really began asserting himself in the fourth quarter and Jokic and Arthur simply didn't have the strength to keep him from getting close enough to the basket to unleash his patented post fade away. Denver kept it close and after a double technical on Nurkic and Mario Chalmers they were only trailing by four. This is where Nelson had a terrible sequence. After a Gallo turnover and a Randolph miss Nelson took a three pointer about five seconds into the shot clock and missed. He followed this by going under a screen which allowed Chalmers to get an open look at a three, which he made. Nurkic got rejected and then Nelson failed to block out Allen who secured an offensive rebound and was promptly fouled. That stretch was the nail in the coffin for Denver and they end up losing 91-84.
Key Matchup: Nurkic vs Gasol
Gasol went toe to toe with both Nurkic and Jokic tonight and ended up having the best game of the bunch but it wasn't as if any of the three was particularly stellar tonight. Generally, it seemed as though whichever team was playing the bigger lineup was the team going on the scoring run at the time. Gasol was pretty clutch down the stretch and had a sequence where he showed the difference between him and Nurkic. After refusing to let Nurkic body him up and get low in the post, Juka resorted to a turn around fade away from about twenty feet away which he missed. Gasol promptly went down to the other side of the court, posted up Nurkic and took the same fade away and swished it with ease.
Key thing to watch for: Rotations
The rotations weren't quite fueled by a fully healthy roster. Emmanuel Mudiay was out again with his ankle sprain and as mentioned Denver was without Faried as well. Mudiay's absence is really hurting Denver. In the now thirteen games he has missed Denver is 3-10 and I don't think that's unrelated. Mudiay was having his struggles to be sure, but having Foye run the offense is just killing Denver. There was a possession where Foye dribbled left, dribbled right, stood dribbling and then with five seconds left on the clock actually made a nice move to get to the basket and promptly missed the layup. Terrible. I think once Faried and Mudiay are back you can expect to have them joined by Gallinari, Harris and Nurkic in the starting lineup with Nelson, Barton, Arthur and Jokic getting the bulk of the minutes on the bench and that will generally be the rotation. There might be some sprinkling in of Lauvergne or Miller depending on the style and match ups but the previous nine guys are in my opinion the guys Denver should run with.
Mario Chalmers shouldn't be allowed to have arms:
No, no he shouldn't. Why? Because when he has arms he starts trying to rile people up by reaching in and trying to steal the ball away from a guy well after the whistle has blown. Chalmers tried to pull that stunt tonight on Nurkic and he was having none of it. What resulted was a little scuffle between the two which was somewhat comical given the size difference. Both players got technicals. Nurkic has all but assured himself to be the most hated man inside the grindhouse anytime Denver comes to visit. Chalmers meanwhile had a fairly forgettable game until the two minutes at the end of the game which followed his altercation with Nurkic. Chalmers buried two clutch threes that ended up being the dagger in Denver's heart.
Box score via ESPN.com