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Mile Highs and Lows: A Recap of the Denver Nuggets in January

After a shaky start to the season, the Nuggets seem to be back on track

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets entered the month of January with a less-than-stellar 1-3 record after starting the season a little discombobulated, to say the least. While a lot of this seemed to be the result of additions and deletions to the roster, in addition to changes with the rotation, it was discouraging for Nuggets fans to watch the team that just came off of a Conference Finals run struggle to get wins in the early part of the season. However, after the initial adjustment period, it seems that the Nuggets have hit their stride, especially after a very impressive 4-1 road trip that saw them notch wins against the Phoenix Suns twice, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Miami Heat. The Nuggets now sit in the top four of the Western Conference, only three losses away from first place. With Nikola Jokic in the MVP conversation due to his absolutely dominating performance this season, it seems that the Nuggets will once again be a team that can make a deep playoff run.

Let’s take a look at some of the key storylines in the first full month of the season.

Record in January: 11-5

Overall record: 12-8

Game of the Month: Denver Nuggets (120) vs. Phoenix Suns (112), 1/23/21

In what game can you find TWO buzzer-beating threes from a player of each team to force 10 additional minutes of basketball to an already thrilling game? Well, on January 23rd, that’s exactly what fans got when they tuned into the second game of a Covid back-to-back between the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets. All three games between these two teams this season have been thrillers, and this game was probably the best of them all (if you’re a Nuggets fan). After one of Chris Paul’s patented clutch mid-range jumpshots put the Suns ahead 98-95 with .12 seconds left, the Nuggets needed a three to keep hope alive. Jamal Murray then hit one of the most incredible buzzer beating shots I’ve seen from a Nugget to force overtime. The action did not end there, though. Once again, the game came down to the last second, but this time it was Jae Crowder for the Suns that hit a miraculous three-pointer to force another five minutes of basketball. Then, behind a great performance from Nikola Jokic in double overtime, the Nuggets were able to come away with their second straight win against the Suns in back-to-back nights. It was truly one of the most entertaining regular season games you can imagine.

Highlight of the Month: Facundo Campazzo displays his excellent passing

When Facundo Campazzo signed with the Nuggets, one of the only things most fans knew about him was that he was an excellent passer. This skill has been on full display since he joined the team, and there is no better example of it than a pass he made against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 19, 2021. After getting a steal, Campazzo ran the fast break for the Nuggets, with Monte Morris trailing not too far behind. Campazzo then completed an amazing pass in which he tossed the ball between his legs to Morris. Morris then finished the play with a layup to create a truly amazing highlight for the Nuggets. It was a very pretty play to watch unfold, and hopefully we get much more of that from Facu this season.

Player of the month: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic is having an absolute historical start to the season for the Nuggets. Not only is he leading the team in points, assists, rebounds, and steals (which is absolutely insane when you think about it), but he has also dramatically increased his stats across the board from last season. He is currently averaging 26.8 points (increased from 19.9 a season ago), to go along with 8.6 assists and 11.8 rebounds. He has notched a double-double in all 20 games this season, and simply put, he is having one of the best starts to a season in Nuggets’ franchise history. Most recently, Jokic tied his career high with 47 points to help the Nuggets snap the Utah Jazz’ 11-game winning streak. While it’s no surprise that Jokic is continuing to prove that he is the best player on this team, and one of the best players in the league, the way in which he is dominating games and helping his team to victories is truly great to see. This is especially true considering that Jokic has often been criticized for his performances in the early parts of a season when the games do not matter as much.

If Jokic can stay on the current track he is on, and the Nuggets are able to finish with one of the best records in the West, then there’s absolutely no reason he should not be highly considered for MVP.

Story of the Month: The continuing battle for the starting small forward spot

When the season began, it seemed as though Michael Porter Jr. had officially earned a starting spot for this team after a rookie season in which his head coach’s confidence in him ebbed and flowed. In the first four games of the season in which he started, Porter Jr. showed why he is one of the most talented young players in the NBA, averaging 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. It looked like he was really coming into his own as a starter in the league, despite the team’s early struggles that seemed to have more to do with the bench and the lackluster performances from some of the other starters not named Porter Jr., Nikola, or Jamal. Then, Porter Jr. was forced to enter quarantine due to the league’s health and safety protocols after a presumed exposure to COVID-19, which ended in Porter Jr. contracting the virus himself and having to be out an extended amount of time. All and all, MPJ missed a total of 10 games to start the month of January.

Upon his anticipated return, Michael Malone opted to keep Will Barton as the starter, either to work MPJ back into the rotation slowly after missing so much time, or to keep the starting lineup the same after Barton showed some promise as a starter while MPJ was out. In his 10 games as a starter, Barton definitely had some lackluster performances, including two separate two-point performances, in losses to the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz. However, he also had some great performances as well, including two games in which he scored over 20 points. While MPJ has come off the bench in each of his first six games since his return, Malone has not let who starts the game to determine who closes the game. MPJ has been immensely important in securing wins down the stretch since his return, none more obvious than the one against the Dallas Mavericks after Jamal Murray was ejected for a flagrant two foul. In that game, Porter Jr. showed how good of a closer he can be, finishing with 30 points and 8 rebounds and helping the Nuggets fend off the Mavericks’ run following Murray’s ejection.

What remains to be seen is who will finish this season as the starter. MPJ has certainly shown he can be a starter on any team in this league, but Malone’s decision will probably be based more off of the chemistry of the starters and the bench unit. Only time will tell who will go into the playoffs as the starting small forward of this team, but regardless, it’s safe to say the Nuggets have a gem in MPJ.

Surprise of the month: The Nuggets get off to a slow start despite Jokic’s excellent play

If you had told me prior to the season starting that Jokic would be in the MVP conversation after the first 20 games, I would have thought that the Nuggets had one of, if not the, best records in the league, or at least the West. Instead, the Nuggets are still in the process of climbing out of the hole they created for themselves after their 1-4 start to the season in which they failed to get wins down the stretch and just did not look like the same team that made those 3-1 comebacks in the bubble last season. Most of this, as mentioned earlier, can probably be attributed to the changes to the roster. Not only did the bench unit drastically change with the additions of JaMychal Green, Facundo Campazzo, and Isaiah Hartenstein to replace Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, and Mason Plumlee, but Malone has also made some changes to the rotation since last season. P.J. Dozier is now getting regular bench minutes and MPJ and Will Barton have both had games as the starting small forward for the team.

In most of the losses to start the season, it’s not as though the Nuggets were getting embarrassed by the opposing teams. Instead, they were losing a lot of close games, which again can be chalked up to the process of ironing out each player’s roles and responsibilities. Still, despite their slow start, the Nuggets are now in a good place. They sit fourth in the Western Conference and, if the most recent game against the Jazz is any indication, they can compete with just about anybody when they are clicking. Pretty soon, hopefully their 1-4 start to the season will be in the distant past.

Grade for the month: A-

What’s new on Denver Stiffs:

Perhaps the best way to review how the month of January went for the Nuggets is to take a look at the Denver Stiffs page. Here are just some of the highlights from the Stiffs:

  • This season, the Denver Stiffs premiered their new podcast series, “Garbage Takes,” in which two members trade hot takes after being presented with five interesting questions. In this past week’s episode, for example, the Stiffs pondered whether or not Jamal Murray’s flagrant foul against Tim Hardaway Jr. was intentional.
  • Brandon Ewing explored the question of whether or not more minutes are in the future for Nuggets’ rookie R.J. Hampton following P.J. Dozier’s groin injury
  • Ever wonder what your favorite Nuggets player of all time is currently doing after retiring from basketball? In the most recent edition of the Chick N’ Nuggets Podcast, Jena Garcia and Reilly Biller fill you in on some of those answers, as well as discuss the recent events of the Nuggets’ season.
  • In this edition of “Stat of the Week,” Ryan Blackburn dives into which of the Nuggets’ two-man rotations seem to be working early in the season, and which are not.
  • In the weekly series entitled “Starting Five,” Ryan Blackburn takes a look at five topics relevant to the week and provides in-depth analysis. In this edition, for example, he dives into all of the ways that Michael Porter Jr. can improve this team after his return from being out for health and safety protocols.
  • 16 games into the season, Daniel Lewis dished out grades for the Nuggets’ players and analyzed their current standing in the league.
  • Since Jamal Murray seems to constantly be dealing with injuries so far this season, Evan Fiala attempted to answer the question of whether or not the Nuggets could afford to give him some rest
  • After an MVP start for best player, Gage Bridgford broke down why exactly Jokic has made such a leap this season
  • In this edition of Zach Mikash’ weakly musing, he explores the importance of execution in one’s daily life, paralleling that with the Nuggets’ struggles to win games early in the season
  • How is JaMychal Green fitting into the Nuggets so far? Pretty well, if you ask Brandon Ewing.
  • The month of January was a historical one for so many reasons having nothing to do with basketball. In this important piece, Ryan Blackburn provides a real-life example of white privilege in reaction to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th
  • Ryan Blackburn sheds light into just how important Monte Morris is to this team in this piece