The Denver Nuggets returned to the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center to take on a slumping Memphis Grizzlies team. It turned out that was just what the doctor ordered and despite some lackluster play in the third quarter the Nuggets dominated for pretty much the entire game to earn a victory. Nikola Jokic led the way for Denver and he got help from Jamal Murray and Gary Harris along the way. The Grizzlies meanwhile were anemic for the vast majority of the game on offense and despite a career night for Marc Gasol in terms of assists, they were unable to stick with the Nuggets for 48 minutes.
The game started how one might expect with Gasol and Jokic opening up the scoring for each of their teams. For the most part, Memphis and Denver traded baskets (or turnovers) early with no team gaining a clear advantage out of the gate. As the quarter progressed both teams got a little more careless with the basketball and they piled up the turnovers. Murray buried a three off a pick and roll at about the 7 minute mark to put Denver up 12-8. Kenneth Faried, who got the start, was paying off for coach Malone with energy, especially on the offensive glass. Faried’s stint was short though as Malone went with Trey Lyles and Will Barton as his first subs off the bench. Denver’s reserves, with the support of Murray and Harris, kept the Nuggets in front of the Grizzlies as the quarter started to come to a close. Denver rode a 10-4 run to finish the first which gave them a nine point lead after one.
The second quarter started out slow offensively. The Nuggets couldn’t convert on their free throw opportunities and the Grizzlies just plain couldn’t convert. The absence of Mike Conley was painfully obvious for Memphis and outside of Gasol they just didn’t have anyone who they could rely on on offense, though Ben McLemore did have a nice couple of possessions early in the second. At about the 7 minute mark Jokic checked back into the game while Gasol went to the bench which should have opened the doors for Denver’s offense but they were unable to build on their lead which continued to hang around ten points. However, once Denver’s starters came back on the court they pushed the pace and the Grizzlies couldn’t respond which led to Denver’s lead ballooning to 18 with two and a half minutes to go in the quarter. Gasol carried Memphis back for a bit but the half ended with Denver up 61-45.
The second half opened as a defensive stand off, with the teams combining for a total of ten points in the first three minutes. Murray had a a beautiful block on Mario Chalmers and overall the defense was looking good for the Nuggets. Tyreke Evans brought some life to the Grizzlies off the bench and that helped them to start cutting into Denver’s lead. Parsons and Gasol also helped contribute and when Dillon Brooks hit a three with just over two minutes left in the third Coach Malone was forced to take a timeout with the Nuggets lead down to just seven. Denver’s ice cold ways continued all the way to the end of the quarter and by the time it ended their lead was only two points after only scoring fifteen points all quarter.
The Nuggets defense was still playing well as the fourth quarter opened and a couple of nice stops got the crowd energy back which seemed to get under the Grizzlies skin a bit while also energizing the Nuggets, particularly Jokic. Nikola started to go to work in the paint and be aggressive on offense, scoring the first six points of the quarter for the Nuggets. He kept the heat on Memphis by assisting a Harris bucket and then knocking down a pair of jumpers. Behind Nikola’s stellar play Denver was able to push the lead back up towards double digits. Memphis kept hanging around but eventually time became an issue and they weren’t able to get back into it quick enough. Denver winds up with the win 104-92.
Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Marc Gasol
This is the best matchup pretty much by default because no one else on the Grizzlies was producing much, especially on the offensive side. Gasol was his typical self, though he did have to work a little harder to get his points as he too struggled from the field. However, he made up for it by being a facilitator and piling up assists. In fact, Gasol would set a new career high in assists with 14. On Jokic’s end it was nice to see him finally get the best of Gasol in a match up. While Nikola has generally found success on the glass in this matchup, Gasol has been able to keep the Joker off the scoreboard. That wasn’t the case tonight with Jokic nearly topping 30 points and nearly getting a triple double against Gasol.
Main thing I noticed: Jamal Murray continues to play well
Maybe it’s “the game slowing down for him” or whatever you want to call it but Murray is looking more and more like he belongs with every game. I think Jamal is starting to get past the mental hurdles it looked like he was facing early in the season and instead of forcing the action he seems to be taking what the defense gives him a lot more. He still hasn’t reached the level that the Nuggets fans and front office alike are hoping for but early on this season we are starting to see improvement over last year which makes you hopeful that Murray is going to work out as one of the major parts of Denver’s future.
Closing thought: Denver’s defense still looks good
Losing Paul Millsap is obviously a big blow to the Nuggets defense but tonight they looked good. Now, some of that is the aforementioned lack of scoring punch on Memphis’ side but a lot of it was also the Nuggets putting forth the energy and effort on that end of the floor. Jokic in particular stood out with his positioning and rotations. While Jokic will never have the athleticism to be a Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside, tonight was a perfect example of how he can still help a team defensively despite those limitations.