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Mile Highs and Lows: A Recap of the Denver Nuggets in January ‘22

For the first time in a while, there is a lot of hope amongst Nuggets Nation for the fate of this season

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The first couple of months of the 2021-22 season were less than ideal for the Denver Nuggets. For a team that was already missing its second best player in Jamal Murray, the injury bug was relentless to start the season as the team had to play games without multiple rotation players on a consistent basis. At times, this became too much for the team to handle, even with the reigning MVP having another incredible season. It seemed as though the season prior to January was consisted of winning one game, and then losing the next; winning two games; and then losing the next two. The Nuggets have just been too depleted to get a consistent rhythm, made worse by their unbelievably tough schedule in the month of December.

However, this past month has definitely been a positive one for the Nuggets, as they have started to get healthy and are finally stringing wins together in order to climb the standings. Not only that, but the front office showed that they are very committed to putting the best possible team around Nikola Jokic headed into the playoffs this season, as they have already been active ahead of the trade deadline this month. To top it all off? There is optimism on the injury front for Murray and Michael Porter Jr. All and all, the vibes around this team could not be better right now, especially compared to a very gloomy December.

Let’s look back at all of the storylines this past month.

Record in January: 11-5

Overall record: 28-21

Game of the Month: Denver Nuggets (130) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (128)

On January 11th, the Denver Nuggets had by far their worst loss of the season against the Los Angeles Clippers in a game in which they blew a 25-point lead in the second half and lost in heartbreaking fashion, 87-85. It was a much different story a week later when the two teams met for a rematch, this one in Denver. The second quarter was a disaster for the Nuggets, as they let the Clippers outscore them by 16 points and therefore carried a 12-point deficit with them into halftime. The Nuggets then came out and had a great third quarter in order to get back in the game. They played even with the Clippers for most of the fourth quarter, but the Clippers were able to get an 8-point lead with four minutes to go, thanks to a career performance from Ivica Zubak, who finished with 32 points and 10 rebounds. Reggie Jackson was also a pain in the Nuggets’ side all night, as they could not find a way to stop him from getting to the basket. However, it was at this point that the MVP got to work. Jokic absolutely dominated the Clippers on the inside and by the end of regulation, the game was tied. Jokic continued to dominate in overtime with his passing, rebounding and scoring. Then, with about 8 seconds left and the game tied, he made one of the most unbelievable plays to win a game, with some help from Aaron Gordon.

Highlight of the Month: Jokic throws an unbelievable pass out of the double team to Aaron Gordon for the game winner

With the ball in Nikola Jokic’s hand and the double team swarming, Nuggets fans held their breath as they wondered what their MVP would do next. Would he take the shot to win the game? Would he pass the ball to a teammate so they could take the shot and win the game? Would he drive to the basket, something he had a ton of success with all night? What ended up happening was one of the best plays you’ll probably see from the Nuggets all season. Jokic threw an incredible pass across the court to Aaron Gordon in the corner. Gordon took a semi-open three-pointer thanks to the double team on Jokic and a savvy cut by Monte Morris, and when the shot fell, the Nuggets were able to secure a win after an extremely hard-fought game.

Player of the month: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic is, of course, the player of the month every month for the Denver Nuggets. But January was definitely his best month of the season so far as he is once again making a great case for another MVP award. He has taken his game to an even higher level as he averaged 26.6 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 9 assists in the month, and it’s mostly thanks to him that the Nuggets somehow find themselves only a game back from the fourth seed. Pick any game in the month of January and you will find an insane stat line from the Joker. Some of the best ones include: 26 points, 11 assists and 21 rebounds against the Utah Jazz on January 5th; 34 points, 8 assists and 9 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons on January 23rd; 28 points, 9 assists and 21 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons two nights later on January 25th; and 18 points, 9 rebounds and 15 assists against the Milwaukee Bucks on January 30th. The game against the Bucks should really solidify his standing atop the MVP race, as the head-to-head matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo proved that even when other star players are scoring more than Jokic, there’s nobody else that’s controlling the game like he does with a combination of passing, scoring and rebounding.

Not many players in the NBA are capable of putting up stat lines like these, and Jokic has been doing it all month. And the most unbelievable part? None of those games were even his best performance in January. Jokic had a statement game against the Los Angeles Clippers on January 19th, and it was that performance that finally had many members of the media acknowledging him as a legitimate contender for the MVP title this season. Simply put, Jokic is playing like the best player in the league, and that is why the Nuggets, through all of their injuries and the toughness of their schedule, still have a chance to make a real run at the fourth seed in a crazy Western Conference.

Story of the Month: The front office is makin’ moves

Tim Connelly and the rest of the front office have been very active the past month, trying to put together pieces around Jokic that will provide him some relief as the team works towards getting healthy for a playoff run. First, it was announced on January 10th that the Nuggets would be trading Bol Bol to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Rodney McGruder and a 2022 second round pick. Three days later, the shocking news of a voided trade due to a failed physical by Bol Bol was made public, to everybody’s surprise. The burning question then became what, if anything, would the Nuggets do with Bol Bol, who then ended up undergoing surgery on his foot to correct the problem that caused the failed physical. Later in the month, however, Connelly and the front office worked their magic. The Nuggets traded Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier, who is out for the season rehabbing a torn ACL, to the Boston Celtics in a three-way trade that landed them Bryn Forbes from the San Antonio Spurs. While trading Dozier was an extremely tough pill to swallow due to the potential he’s shown in his time with the Nuggets, ultimately the move allowed the Nuggets to get a healthy, capable player in exchange for two players that would not have played a role in the playoffs. In his first six games with the Nuggets, Forbes has averaged 9.5 points a game while shooting 39.3% from the field. Hopefully as the season goes on and he becomes more comfortable with the team, Forbes will turn into a consistent three-point shooter and help the offense of the bench unit.

The front office did not finish their work with the trade. On January 19th, it was announced that the Nuggets were signing 4x all-star DeMarcus Cousins to a 10-day contract. The move was undoubtedly one that was designed to ease some of the load being carried by Jokic, as signing another legitimate center will hopefully allow the bench unit to have more success in the minutes when their MVP is not playing. While Cousins has not gotten off to a great start, shooting only 24% from the field, he did have a great game against the Brooklyn Nets, scoring 13 points and notching 6 rebounds in only 12 minutes of action. Hopefully Cousins will develop chemistry with the second unit and provide some much-needed toughness and intensity for the Nuggets.

Surprise of the month:

When it was announced in late November that Michael Porter Jr. would be undergoing a back surgery to attempt to repair the nerve issue he had been dealing with, Nuggets Nation understandably went through a period of grief for the 2021-22 season. We had already come to terms with the fact that Jamal Murray, the team’s second best player, would be out for the majority of the season while repairing a torn ACL. But there was hope that when Murray made his return around the one-year anniversary of the injury that the team would be able to make a run in the playoffs with a healthy squad. It was therefore extremely upsetting to learn that the third best player on the team would most likely miss the remainder of the season after undergoing his third back surgery since college. That news, plus having to watch the Nuggets struggle to win games as they suffered through the effects from the injury bug, made for a less than pleasant experience being a fan of this team in December. Suddenly, the general consensus amongst fans was that this season was essentially meaningless and that the best case scenario was to hope for a chance to contend in 2023 if the team regained its health.

However, there is now reason to have hope for the fate of this season, as a league source told The Denver Post on January 13th that MPJ has actually not been ruled out for the season. Of course, there has been no official confirmation from the Nuggets that he definitely will return this season, but it seems as though that might be a possibility if everything goes ideally. With Murray hopefully returning sometime in the next couple of months, it seems as though the chances of having a fully healthy Nuggets roster by the time the playoffs start is not 0%. And that’s enough to make the month of January much, much better than the month of December.

Grade for the month: A

What’s new on Denver Stiffs:

After the Nuggets beat the Bucks, Ryan Blackburn made the argument that Jokic should be leading everybody’s MVP ballot

On the latest episode of “Pickaxe and Roll,” Ryan Blackburn reviews Bones Hyland’s performance in the second half of the game against the New Orleans Pelicans in which he showcased his point guard skills.

In this edition of Film Friday, Gage Bridgford analyzes how certain duos have performed on the court this season. Want to know how Zeke Nnaji has fared with Jokic on the court? How about Austin RIvers and Monte Morris?

Using the analogy of Jokic being a rockstar and the supporting Nuggets being his band, Asher Levy discusses which players are the ideal bandmates for the Joker in this editorial.

Tommy Knowlton explores the reasons for the Nuggets’ success on offense over the last month in this edition of “The Sixth Man.

Ryan Blackburn gives the fans what they want in “Stiffs Mailbag.” In this edition, he attempts to predict what the playoff rotation will be and what Demarcus Cousins’ role will be going forward.

Gage Bridgford looks at the reasons for Aaron Gordon’s success over the last few weeks in this edition of “Film Friday.”

In this edition of “Stat of the Week,” Ryan Blackburn reacts to Jokic’s stellar performance against the Clippers and praises the MVP for what he’s been able to do this season for the Nuggets.

Following news of the Nuggets’ trade for Bryn Forbes, Ryan Blackburn educates fans on what to expect from the shooter.

Jena Garcia discusses the Nuggets’ move to trade P.J. Dozier for Forbes in this edition of the “Chick N’ Nuggets Podcast.”

After Aaron Gordon spoke up about Jokic’s officiating, Tommy Knowlton dives into the free throw issue surrounding the MVP.

Ryan Blackburn offers a solution to the Nuggets’ bench woes this season in this editorial.