- Jamal Murray is back and extremely clutch
- Nikola Jokic was inconsistent but brought it when it mattered
- Defensive execution and late-game clock management needs work
- Jerami Grant finishes with 46 minutes compared to 22 for Paul Millsap
- Three-pointers remain a concern on both ends of the floor
That was one of the most back-and-forth games in the entire bubble so far. After wrestling away the lead from the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter, the Denver Nuggets tried to give the game away several times. They ultimately prevailing in a gutsy win 134-132 in double overtime, but the process by which they came to that victory was flawed. Still, a win is a win, and there were several positive moments, including the return of the Blue Arrow.
Here are my five takeaways from today:
Jamal Murray is back, and he’s still clutch
There were up-and-down moments from the Blue Arrow in his return. His efficiency wasn’t great, and he still looked a bit hindered by the hamstring injury he was nursing before this game.
Still, how can you not love the playmaking and clutch shots down the stretch of this one?
Jamal Murray (23 PTS, 12 REB, 8 AST) came up clutch during Denver’s 2OT win! pic.twitter.com/KWvEfr3B8Y— NBA TV (@NBATV) August 8, 2020
Murray finished the day with 39 minutes played, 23 points on 10/25 from the field, 12 rebounds (!!!), and eight assists compared to just two turnovers. He was all over the floor today, working hard defensively against all three of Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, and Donovan Mitchell in crunch time. At the other end, Jokic and Murray ran their two-man game to get quality shot after quality shot in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods. The Nuggets scored over and over again, and no matter how many insane shots the Jazz made, they couldn’t keep up in the end.
The high level shot making on display late in the game is the dimension the Nuggets are missing from the Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. tandem. Those two are wonderful, but being able to create off the dribble and shoot efficiently in pressure situations will always be a valuable skill. Murray hasn’t always been efficient on those looks, but he’s rapidly improving.
Nikola Jokic started slow but showed why he’s the best center in the league
At halftime, Nikola Jokic had two points and four assists. The jokes started rolling in on both the TNT halftime show and on Twitter about why Jokic started slow. Was it the weight loss? Was it because he wasn’t actually good? Why was Jokic starting so slowly during a game the Nuggets were down by 14?
Well, as it turns out, Jokic knows exactly when to flip the switch, and flip the switch he did. The big man finished with 30 points on 11/21 from the field to go with 11 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. His second half and overtime performance brought the Nuggets back into the game and helped push them over the top, and his game-tying basket in the first overtime (though made confusing by the game clock malfunction) was as clutch as can be against a mismatch.
He also hit another Sombor Shuffle in OT which is an automatic inclusion in this article.
This is just unfair— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) August 8, 2020
(via @nuggets) pic.twitter.com/JCFvCJU0Jm
Defensive execution and late game clock management need work
There were several moments I could point to about this one. I could just gesture to the entire game frankly. The Nuggets are a young team, and it doesn’t help that they got unlucky on several calls. A phantom loose ball foul called on Murray late in the fourth quarter allowed the Jazz to stay in the game. On an inbound to Porter, Ingles slapped the back of his hand to force the ball out of bounds, but because Ingles never touched the ball—only Porter’s hand—the Jazz got possession. A terrible, no good, very bad rule.
Still, the Nuggets hurt themselves just as much as the refs hurt them. Utah hit 22 three-pointers today, some of them absurdly difficult shots, some the result of poor defensive execution. Porter had some tough moments defensively, and though the experiences will help him develop quicker, there were certainly growing pains that will be prevalent throughout this playoff run.
The Nuggets being without Gary Harris and Will Barton certainly doesn’t help matters on the defensive execution front, but the best thing Michael Malone can do in the short term and long term is play Porter through those mistakes and use the film sessions afterward to teach him.
Jerami Grant doubles up Paul Millsap’s minute total
Millsap started at power forward today and played 22 minutes. It wasn’t an incredibly impactful stretch with just two points and two rebounds to show for it. The Jazz were spacing the floor really well and playing at a quick tempo centered around threes and shots at the rim. In addition, Millsap’s interior presence offensively wasn’t as impactful with Rudy Gobert playing center.
Jerami Grant, coming off the bench and playing both overtime periods, played 47 minutes. He was productive as well, scoring 21 points on 7/12 from the field to go with two rebounds, two steals, and two blocks. The Nuggets had some struggles with rebounding today, and Grant will need to bear some of that responsibility, but he also spent much of his time guarding the perimeter, even defending Mitchell and Conley for stretches.
This may be something, and it may be nothing. With Porter out there as a player who can gobble up rebounds on both ends of the floor, Malone has gone to Grant down the stretch of several games in the bubble so far. At the beginning, it was because the Nuggets were shorthanded. Now, it feels more like a matchup choice. With Porter and Jokic on the floor, the Nuggets need a player who can defend the perimeter as much as they need interior help. Grant has the versatility to play inside and out, and his minutes reflect Malone’s trust for him in that role.
Three-point shooting remains concerning on both ends
The numbers speak for themselves. Denver nearly lost this game because they were outscored by Utah at the three-point line by 39 points. Denver’s interior scorers clearly made up for it this time, and their defense buckled down in the fourth quarter to get them back into things; however, the Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets aren’t going to let Denver off the hook so easily.
The Nuggets are now shooting 32.3% from three-point range in their five games in the bubble. That is 19th in the NBA and not a great sign overall. In addition, Denver’s opponents are shooting 44.4% from three, which leads the NBA (and not in a good way). It’s a miracle that the Nuggets are 3-2 in the bubble and speaks to how clutch Jokic has been in these games.
This trend cannot continue if the Nuggets are to be championship contenders. How they improve remains to be seen, but Porter and Craig especially have to be better. The players that are roasting the Nuggets alive on the perimeter are consistently wings on kick-out threes (and Damian Lillard). If Denver can’t figure out their defensive scheme, their exit from the playoffs will be quicker than expected.