The Denver Nuggets faced their first game in the New Year without Danilo Gallinari, and predictably it wound up in a 103-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Denver outshot Memphis from the field and from 3, and out-rebounded them by 13, but 19 turnovers and just 10 free throws doomed the Nuggets, especially down the stretch. Kenneth Faried had a strong game with 16 points and 11 rebounds and the bench scored 40 points, but Memphis had five players in double-figures led by Zach Randolph's 22, and their 26 free-throw advantage was too much to overcome.
Denver's Interior defense was lacking to start the game, allowing a pair of early Memphis layups as the Nuggets started with low energy. Mudiay missed a pair of jumpers but Harris drained a long three to tie it at 7. Jokic struggled with his handle against Andersen but his presence helped Denver start to find offense as Harris hit another 3 to make it 12-11 and give Denver its first lead of the game. Gary;s early offense was the best thing Denver had going. Mudiay even applied some full court pressure to Conley as Denver's defense found its footing. The Grizzlies and Nuggets exchanged a couple of buckets and turnovers but neither team was in rhythm with their starters. Denver turned the ball over seven times in the first while Memphis lined up back cuts and interior drives for fouls and buckets and went up 22-16 on a 9-2 run, ended by Joffrey Lauvergne's hook shot. Jokic left with two fouls, though, and without Jokic or Mudiay on the court no one was able to orchestrate the offense. The Nuggets trailed 22-19 after one.
Will Barton opened the second quarter with a missed 3, but Lauvergne hit back to back shots in the paint to pull Denver to 24-23. Memphis was the more attacking team until Joffrey fed JaKarr for a monster dunk. The Nuggets could not stop fouling on the defensive end, though. Memphis hit a long two and then turned the Nuggets over again for a fastbreak bucket to push the lead back to 5, 36-31. Mudiay hit a jumper then missed a three,, but Arthur wrestled a rebound away from Z-Bo and Harris hit his three to bring the lead back to two. Memphis kept getting to the line but a pair of Faried buckets in the paint cut it to 42-40. The Grizzlies went 0-for-10 on three pointers in the half (the hazards of trading the team's best three-point shooter) but the Nuggets were unable to take full advantage. They kept fighting, though. Faried had a terrible foul and technical called on him but a Barton free throw cut the lead to 46-43. Harris had a beautiful scrapped rebound of his own miss that he converted into a layup, and a Barton drive took Denver back to the lead at 47-46 with under a minute to go. However, weak-side layup with a second left in the half put the Grizzlies up 48-47 at the break.
Randolph and Jokic swapped buckets to start the third, then Sampson and P.J. Hairston swapped threes. Faried hit a long jumpshot and a paint layup to keep it at 56-56, with the Nuggets attacking again. Neither team missed much to start the second half so even with Faried's scoring the Nuggets couldn't make serious headway and still trailed 61-60. Denver then went perimeter as fouls were not called in their favor inside and the Grizzlies took a 67-62 lead. The Nuggets did a lot of standing around, without screens or cuts for a few minutes, but Mudiay hit a three anyway, and a Joffrey tip-in tied it at 67. Lance Stephenson hit a couple of contested jumper's but Barton's sky hook took it to 71-all at the end of 3.
The Nuggets then started the fourth the way they'd played the entire game, with two turnovers in the first minute. D.J. Augustin then performed his version of the Will Barton show by hitting a three then slashing for a bucket that put Denver up 78-76. A strip of Augustin led to an easy layup by Memphis but Augustin came right back. Darrell Arthur played good defense to help force a turnover then hit a three and it looked like Denver might find a way to prevail. Barton's circus shot made it 85-83, but Chalmers hit a three to put Memphis back up, and Denver's one-point lead with 6 minutes to go proved too fragile. Denver just had too many turnovers and missed plays, and were a step slow at the end. Mudiay and Jokic cross-court turnovers down the stretch (20 for the game) were just too many to overcome, helped Memphis pull away with a 14-4 run that extended the Grizzlies' lead to 99-91. Mudiay's late three wasn't enough as a cheap flagrant 1 on Gary Harris ended Denver's faint hopes and the Nuggets fell 103-96.
Not enough Jokic. Nikola Jokic got into early foul trouble again and netted just 19 minutes while JaKarr Sampson got 30 minutes in a spot start. Those numbers really need to be reversed for Denver to have a legitimate shot at victory during this homestand, and there wasn't really a reason for them not to be reversed. Jokic got two fouls in his first eight minutes and finished with... two fouls. This was the same issue many of us had with Shaw last year, when Jusuf Nurkic would get 3 fouls and get pulled for the game.
There's no four-foul limit on rookies. Let Jokic play. His ability to function as a high-post orchestrator is really helpful, and with the Grizzlies having a minimal paint presence it was frustrating to see the two biggest players on the Nuggets sitting on the bench. Whatever is going on with Nurkic (who was an apparently-healthy scratch again) Jokic was healthy and protecting him from foul trouble that never came cost Denver in this contest. It's not like the rest of the team wasn't busy fouling away with imputiny; Jokic should have been out there for the experience if nothing else.
No Gallo = more team. The Nuggets did a good job of spreading the scoring out, getting five players of their own into double-figures and two more with 9 points. The lack of free throws was absolutely killer, though, and Gallinari is usually the one who starts getting whistles and heading up the paint penetration. Without him, someone else is going to have to start the march to the line because Denver cannot be a jump-shooting team and eke out too many victories. Memphis is good at turning teams over and we fell into that trap, but they normally also foul a lot and we couldn't buy charity stripe visits - mostly because we didn't force the issue. To combat the loss of their leading scorer, Denver will have to make it easier on themselves, and get into team foul situations early and often. That didn't happen tonight, so hopefully the loss is a good reminder.
Mudiay's lack of experience and scoring acumen really hurts us in these games. There were passes that Mudiay made where he should have shot, and shots that he needs to knock down that he simply can't right now. The offense works better with him out there, but 60 foot passes are easier to steal and the Grizzlies started to look for them as the game went on. He never faced the cross-court pass and re-positioned his guys. He's simply playing checkers right now while other teams are playing chess. Once his acumen matches his passing skill and he can hurt teams even a little at the rim and with his jumper the Nuggets will take these sorts of games going away as they march to the free throw line and cut up defenses, but it's not quite there right now. Sometimes patience is hardest when it's easy to see what a little improvement will do for the team. At least he was allowed to play and learn, though, and when it goes right it's really right, like this:
More of that, please.