- LeBron James had his best game of the playoffs when it mattered
- Jamal Murray is an absolute warrior
- Nikola Jokic deals with foul trouble again
- Jerami Grant proves his worth in this series
- The Nuggets will be back
It’s a tough pill to swallow for Denver Nuggets fans as Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and the Nuggets will exit the bubble following a Game 5 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. It hurts. After the team fought back as hard as they could in the first and second rounds, it was clear that they had given everything to be here and were just running out of steam. The Lakers earned the right to advance, and it came down to having the best player in the world.
My five takeaways from Denver’s final game of 2019-20:
LeBron James remains the best player in the world
It didn’t matter how much attention the Nuggets gave to LeBron throughout this series, because the King is the King, especially in closeout games. He had some help with various non-calls (including a blatant charge in the fourth quarter trucking Jamal Murray) but let’s focus on why LeBron is great instead.
He had 38 points on 13-of-25 from the field, including what felt like a million points in the fourth quarter. Before tonight, LeBron was shooting nine percent on shots between 16 and 24 feet this series. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, he hit two in that zone, hit a deep three-pointer, and did his signature work around the basket as well. It was an incredible scoring performance, and he added 16 rebounds and 10 assists to round out the triple-double.
James remains the best player in the world, and Nuggets fans can take solace in the fact that the only team they were defeated by this postseason was a team with LeBron James. No other team had more talent and guts than the Nuggets. There’s no shame in losing to LeBron.
Jamal Murray appears hobbled, plays through pain because that’s who he is
Sitting in front of my television at home, I was genuinely worried about Jamal Murray’s physical health tonight. It was pretty clear from the jump that he didn’t have the requisite explosiveness he showed throughout the playoffs, and it appeared that Murray was wearing down from the fatigue of playing the most minutes in the playoffs of anyone.
In reality, Murray was labored due to injury. He spoke about a bone bruise in his knee postgame after a report surfaced during halftime that he was dealing with a knee contusion. After hearing those words and watching for two minutes, it was clear that Murray wasn’t right. Instead of sitting out and taking care of an injury with his team down 3-1 in the series, Murray played 24 straight minutes in the second half and 43 for the game, doing his best to chase down Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on screens or body LeBron freaking James in the post.
It’s clear through the first four years of his career that Murray is an absolute warrior. No player in the NBA embodies overcoming any obstacle no matter what the circumstance better than Murray. From 50, 42, and 50 points in consecutive games against the Utah Jazz to 40 points in a closeout Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers to going toe-to-toe with LeBron throughout this series, Murray has risen to the occasion at every turn.
I’m glad he’s a Nugget.
Nikola Jokic deals with foul trouble throughout the game
Two of Nikola Jokic’s five fouls tonight were what I’d call “iffy” but it’s fitting that Jokic only plays 30 minutes in tonight’s game because of a Euro foul in the first quarter to stop a fast break. That was Jokic’s first foul, and his second came at the six minute mark of the second quarter. It as clear from the get go that Mason Plumlee being in the game wasn’t going to get it done, but that’s on Jokic for putting Malone in an impossible decision for basically the entire first half.
Jokic finished with 20 points on 16 shots tonight, but on a night where Murray was clearly hobbled, the Nuggets needed everything they could get from their other superstar. His foul trouble limited his aggression, and it wasn’t until too late in the game that his scoring impact was felt.
Let this be a teaching moment for Jokic going forward: he can’t be the one to give up Euro fouls anymore. Literally anyone else on Denver can get away with it, but as a center having to contend with LeBron James, and Anthony Davis, and Dwight Howard at the rim, he had to be more choosy about spending his fouls wisely. He wasn’t tonight, and it cost Denver.
Jerami Grant was exceptional tonight and this postseason
It may not show completely because LeBron James was as good as he was, but Jerami Grant made LeBron work hard than anyone in the bubble so far. Grant played 46 minutes, spent almost all of it guarding LeBron except on crossmatches, and still managed to chip in 20 points, nine rebounds, a steal, and a block. The Lakers worked hard to get other players switched onto LeBron throughout the game and the series, and Grant still managed to force LeBron into tough shot situations when he wasn’t taken out by a screen. Sometimes, you just have to tip you cap to the best player in the world.
It should be made clear that the Nuggets aren’t even close in these games without Grant. He had 26 points in Denver’s only win, guarded LeBron and AD about as well as anyone in this postseason, and showcased an offensive skill set that should continue to grow if given time to develop next to Jokic and Murray. Michael Porter Jr. will account for some of his weaknesses as a role player, and those two project to be great for each other going forward.
Grant is going to earn a lot of money this offseason when he declines his player option, and the Nuggets better be ready to pay up when he does.
The Nuggets will be back
This won’t be the last hurrah for the Denver Nuggets. For other Western Conference teams, things appear to be in a dire place. Not Denver. The Nuggets never sacrificed their future to be here in the present, and that bodes well for who the Nuggets can be next season.
Nikola Jokic (25 years old) and Jamal Murray (23) are under contract with Denver for the next three seasons. Jokic will be a free agent in 2023 and has never given any indication that he dislikes playing in Denver. Murray signed a five-year max contract extension last offseason that will kick in next season. He won’t be a free agent until 2025.
If I stopped the conversation right there, it would be enough to be excited about Denver’s future, but I don’t have to stop there. Michael Porter Jr. (22) is on a rookie contract for another two years and is in Denver’s future plans. Bol Bol (20) showcased some star potential in the seeding games with an extremely unique skill set at a young age. Gary Harris (26) and Will Barton (29) remain under contract. Monte Morris (25) and P.J. Dozier (23) remain under contract. The Nuggets have first round draft picks in every draft year going forward that they can use as either young players or trade assets to bolster the roster.
The only major questions are Grant’s player option, the free agency of Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, and how the Nuggets plan to make the money work.
The good news? Tim Connelly has proven to be a great executive. Michael Malone has proven to be a great head coach. The Nuggets are in good hands now and going forward, and that should help Nuggets fans to hold their heads high.