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Recap: Nuggets lose ugly, last-second heartbreaker to the Grizzlies 89-87

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Nikola Jokic missed the final shot - but it was also his only shot

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets played an ugly, sloppy game and lost what felt like a flashback game against the Memphis Grizzlies 89-87. The referees called a ton of fouls in the first and third quarters, helping to create the disjointed mess, but the Nuggets never really got into the flow of their offense and had some unforced turnovers and poor shots down the stretch that doomed them.

Denver had a big game from Gary Harris, who scored 20 points on 16 shots, while Jamal Murray had 15 points on 21 shots on an off night after his season-high 48 against the Celtics. Nikola Jokic took only one shot - the last one of the game - on a night where Denver shot just 39% from the floor and had 16 turnovers. The Grizzlies had 20 points each from Marc Gasol and the young and talented Jaren Jackson Jr. while Kyle Anderson added 14. Those were the only Grizzlies in double figures, but tonight it was enough.

The Grizzlies had offensive fouls on their first two possessions, then got a defensive one on Millsap. The refs blew whistles on every possession the first couple of minutes, but the Grizzlies converted a few possession for a 4-0 early lead before Gary Harris nailed a transition three. Jaren Jackson responded with a trey, but the Nuggets kept their energy up and attacked the paint on the break and in the pick and roll. The Nuggets did the same to Denver though and led 11-8 after 5 minutes.

Denver did get a second early foul on Gasol, and 6 early turnovers caused by the Nuggets got them 8 points and some harris free throws put Denver up 18-11 after a 10-0 run. Jokic had more steals than shots from the field in the quarter but Denver’s large advantage in possessions let them craft a 29-22 lead after one.

Denver’s bench played hard to start the second half, but Plumlee struggled a bit with Marc Gasol. Trey Lyles found his scoring touch but Wayne Selden hit a three to get Memphis within 5. Memphis had its 10th turnover in 15 minutes, but the lead was at 37-33 when Jokic and Millsap returned. Memphis tied the game at 39, the Nuggets got a couple of buckets but Jokic snagged quick fouls in a tightly - somewhat punitively - called game. Denver settled for missed jumpers and struggled against the lengh of Jackson, while the Grizzlies defended their hoop and attacked Denver’s to take the lead back with under a minute to go into halftime on a 10-0 run and with the 50-47 lead.

The third quarter opened with even more fouls and Denver running its pick game off of dribble handoffs to no good effect (37% from the field through the first 26 minutes). A Murray three cut the lead to 53-51, but Gasol fired back with a three and Jokic still refused to shoot. Denver turned the ball over 5 times in the first 6 minutes of the quarter and then Jokic got his fifth foul.

Monte Morris came in and Denver’s bench picked it up, grabbing a 7-0 run with some Memphis turnovers included. An oop from Morris to Plumlee put Denver up 64-63 at the three minute mark, but Jaren Jackson Jr. fired right back. The two benches were much more effective offensively than the starting units, but Denver’s managed to tie the game at 70 after 3 in a very Memphis-style game.

The Nuggets opened their fourth quarter scoring with a pair of Plumlee finished off assisted plays and then Murray nailed a three to get Denver a 77-72 cushion. Gasol dunked right back on them though, and both teams cooled off from the field for a few minutes. Gasol and Plumlee exchanged paint buckets but otherwise it was some miserable offense as Malone rode Denver’s bench maybe a bit too long.

Denver’s starters came back in and were outscored early - and committed more silly turnovers - but Harris and Juancho Hernangomez got Denver the lead back at 83-82 with two minutes to go. Another silly passing turnover let Memphis keep the lead, and Jokic had a wide open three that he refused to pull the trigger on. Memphis went up four at 87-83 with 40 seconds to go. Trey Lyles couldn’t finish a three point play but Juancho got a rebound and Murray buried a long two to tie the game. Marc Gasol hit a pair of free throws at the other end, and Jokic’s very first counted shot of the game was a rushed three on the final play that went awry. The Grizzlies took home a hard-fought 89-87 victory in a game that Denver will not enjoy rewatching in the film room.

Final Thoughts

Nikola Jokic’s paucity of shots doesn’t feel like an accident. I ran a poll before the game, and here are the results:

Murray easily surpassed his 15 shot mark, but Jokic continued his recent pattern of refusing to look for his own offense. His screens were good, his defensive effort was fine, and despite 6 turnovers he wasn’t lazy with his passing. He simply refused, at any time, to actually shoot. He had zero logged shot attempts in his first 21 (foul-shortened) minutes.

There comes a point when a trend means something more, and Nikola Jokic not shooting isn’t a quirk any more in the early season. If he’s making a statement, I don’t know what it is, but if he is injured I wish Denver would say something and if Jokic has something else in mind for his lack of shooting then I hope he gets it out of his system. Denver needs him in all facets, not just the cute ones. Joker’s unwillingness to score - or even look to score - needs to stop. It puts pressure on Denver’s other players to be the scoring engine, and as the team played hot potato with the ball late it was clear that no one else was willing or able to lock down that role.

Jokic is the team’s highest-paid player, and its best player - sometimes making the “right basketball play” isn’t enough. Sometimes, your teammates need you to put them on your shoulders on an off night and carry them over the line. The next time that situation comes up, I hope Jokic responds differently than he did tonight.

I hate games with no flow. The referees blew whistles everywhere, for every reason or no reason at all. I like basketball for the open, flowing beauty it can have. This was a food fight between drunk people. Bring on the next palate cleanser as soon as possible.