Some wins are beautifully displayed, others ugly as sin. The Denver Nuggets will take their wins however they can get them and gutted out the 105-99 victory tonight over the visiting Memphis Grizzlies. Nikola Jokic came out aggressively, putting up 19 first half points and finishing with 27 / 12 / 6 to pace Denver’s effort.
Jamal Murray came out limping from the start, a carryover from getting kicked in the shin in Denver’s last game, then took a hard screen right at the end of the first half. His free throws down the stretch helped seal the deal, though, and his 16 points, 5 assists and 4 steals were all crucial. Monte Morris made up for bad shooting nights from Trey Lyles and Juancho Hernangomez with 20 points, and Mason Plumlee’s double-double helped offset Mike Conley’s 19 and the Memphis bench kicking in 51.
The Nuggets won the opening tip and Jokic clanked a three to start the game. Jaren Jackson Jr. slammed a dunk home to open the scoring. Plumlee missed a hook, but Jokic hit his next three. Some miscommunications beset the Nuggets with turnovers and awkward play - to be expected with so many different players trying on new roles. Jokic hit a pair of free throws to take the lead at 5-4. Jokic got Gasol into foul trouble early with a quick second and more free throws, but JaMychal Green tied it up for Memphis again. Torrey Craig buried a three and Murray did the same to extend Denver’s lead, but Memphis fought back to within two before another pair of threes from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley made it 20-12 Denver. The Grizzlies made their final five field goals of the quarter to keep it close, and Beasley missed a three at the end to leave it at 26-22 Denver after one.
The Grizzlies scored the first two buckets of the second quarter before Beasley took a turnover and dropped some thunder on the rim:
The two teams traded buckets for a few minutes but Trey Lyles hit a couple of buckets and a turnover turned to a Murray / Craig connection to put Denver back up by 4. The Nuggets attacked the paint while Memphis just refused to miss for long stretches of the quarter, leading to a 45-45 deadlock before a Jokic sprint for a layup and a Murray / Plumlee dunk connection got Denver a 4 point lead again. Jokic matched the scoring from the Memphis starting lineup by himself in the first half but Denver couldn’t get any real space, up just 5 at the break 55-50.
The Nuggets came out with a few nice plays but poor execution in the paint and unfortunate turnovers by Juancho Hernangomez let Memphis work its two-man game to take the lead at 63-61. Denver looked slow and out of sorts as the Grizzlies outworked and outran Denver as part of a 17-4 Memphis run. After a Marc Gasol three that stretched the Memphis lead to seven, Jokic answered in the paint. Mike Conley went back to the locker room for Memphis briefly while Monte Morris got a steal and finish, then Jokic got the step-back to cut it to 72-71. Morris got a paint bucket and fired in a three to retake the lead for Denver in a spectacular third quarter showing off the bench. Denver kept active hands for steals and deflections. Denver missed threes down the stretch while letting Memphis run back on their misses with layups to keep the lead trading back and forth. The crowd got into the action as Murray threw an oop to Plumlee and Denver gutted out a one point lead at 84-83.
Monte Morris having himself a third. pic.twitter.com/yT4zlus8sW— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 11, 2018
Monte Morris hit a three to open the final frame but both teams struggled with their shooting and Denver could not finish when the opportunities were there. Denver brought Jokic back but still couldn’t find an offensive groove, with Memphis going on a 7-1 run but Monte Morris’s 20th point put Denver back up 93-92 with five minutes to go. Mike Conley and Jamal Murray traded great drives, but Denver’s ability to execute and the ball was out of Jokic’s hands too often.
Denver clung to a 1 point lead at 98-97 with two minutes to go. Jokic made a bucket, Conley missed a floater, and then a beautiful give-and-go on a back cut with Jokic and Murray put Denver up five with just over a minute to go. Back-to-back turnovers forced by the Nuggets wedged open the door to victory and free throws down the stretch sealed it. Final verdict: 105-99 Denver.
- Chemistry will have to be built with these rotations. Nikola Jokic got upset with Mason Plumlee early in the game for a botched offensive turnover. Plumlee in turn got upset with Malik Beasley for missed defensive assignments, who got upset with Monte Morris for not calling out screeners. Jokic will have to lead the way and he did tonight, but everyone will have to put in the effort to help the team rise above this raft of injuries and bad luck.
The Nuggets will have these moments, these real-time adjustments and communication issues as they iron out new rotations and different packages. Plumlee and Jokic will be playing together more and need to get the hang of it - quickly. Monte Morris was huge tonight and will need to continue that trend, while the bench as a whole will need to pick up its scoring as players are shifted to the starting lineup. Talking - even arguing - is a good thing rather than a bad one. Communication and comfort in new roles are going to be crucial for Denver during this next month.
- Denver needed this. They needed a gutty win after a couple of lackluster losses with teammates dropping like flies. They needed guys to step up, and even guys to struggle to get that feeling out of their systems. It’s going to be a long few weeks as the Nuggets await reinforcements of the non-Nick-Young variety, and Denver has to shake the jitters. Shots and rotations will be missed, but Denver can’t be afraid of it. Embrace the challenge, defend the home court, and make it through.
Cross that first home victory off the schedule.