The Denver Nuggets traveled to Tennessee for their first road game of the season and faced the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were missing several players but still played a tough, defense first game and stuck with the Nuggets every step of the way. Strong efforts from Jamal Murray and Reggie Jackson helped overcome a big night from Jaren Jackson Jr. and a late Memphis run. It wasn’t a pretty win but was a commendable one for Denver who outlasted a physical team on their home floor and gutted out a victory.

The start of the first quarter was very slow with some foul calls, some missed shots and tight defense. It felt like an absolute throwback to the Memphis Grind House days. After making some early calls, the refs completely forgot they were allowed to call fouls at all with the quarter progressing in what became a very physical contest. Additionally, both teams shooting was completely flat with neither team eclipsing the 30% field goal shooting percentage mark. Murray finally knocked down the first three of the game with nearly half the quarter over. He made a mini 5-0 Nuggets run on his own to get them a small lead when the benches started checking in. The game continued to be physical with Denver growing their lead behind Jackson and Christian Braun. After a timeout the Grizzlies started to find their shot. They went on a run of their own to pull within two points. The Nuggets bench responded and didn’t let Memphis over take them. Jackson in particular was playing well. The first ended with Peyton Watson going full double Swatson and Denver up 23-18.

Julian Strawther made his first regular season appearance to open the second quarter and we got our first Michael Malone full bench rotation of the season. Meanwhile, Watson continued his outstanding game knocking down a three to give the Nuggets a double digit lead. It was extremely short lived though. Memphis came back with a run of their own and forced Malone to call a timeout. Watson continued to be the story of the second quarter. He got a steal and finished a tough layup at the other end to get Denver’s lead back to ten. The Nuggets bench unit struggled to find offense outside of him and the occasional Jackson jumper though which let Memphis chip away at the lead. The starters checked back in and settled it down but Xavier Tillman had a couple buckets and Marcus Smart knocked down a three on Memphis’ side keeping Denver’s lead around seven. With about two minutes left in the quarter Murray banged his thumb that he’s been nursing and had to get checked out by the trainers while Malone successfully won a challenge. Jamal, who led all scorers at the time, didn’t seem too bothered after the timeout and stayed in the game. He continued to be the primary source of Denver’s offense which held off a Grizzlies attack that was starting to heat up. At the end of the half Denver led 61-56.

The second half started out slow just like the first half. Murray hit another three but Jokic struggled with turnovers which kept Memphis in a game that felt like Denver could break wide open at any minute. Jackson Jr. was determined to make sure that wasn’t the case. He hit a fast break three and then a layup and Denver’s lead continued to be stuck at five points. On Denver’s end Michael Porter Jr got into a groove knocking down a three of his own and then finishing a tough and-1 against Jackson Jr. Memphis kept hanging around with the bench coming in and Tillman finding some more success on the offensive end. It was a very back and forth quarter. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Desmond Bane were relatively quiet all night but took their turn carrying the offenses for a minute just past midway through the third quarter. Denver’s bench ratcheted up the defense in the final two minutes of the quarter. Watson got another highlight block (might have been goaltending) and Jackson hit a floater at the buzzer to put Denver up ten after three.

Zeke Nnaji was active to start the fourth quarter with some hustle plays and an easy layup. Otherwise though the Nuggets offense looked flat and once again Memphis found their way back into the game. Derek Rose knocked down a triple forcing Malone to take a timeout with the Nuggets lead down to four. Nnaji was carrying the bench unit who settled for jumpers and Zeke cleaned it up on the offensive glass. The Grizzlies also capitalized on the offensive glass on their end and kept the game in striking distance. With just over half the quarter remaining the Nuggets were straying into dangerous territory of letting one slip away. A Rose steal and layup cut the lead to two and got another Denver timeout. Then shortly thereafter another Rose jumper gave the Grizzlies their first lead since the first quarter. Jokic and Murray responded with back to back three pointers, including Murray dribbling Marcus Smart out of his shoes. The Grizzlies pushed back with a Jackson Jr. alley-oop and a Smart basket but Murray found Gordon for a dunk with thirty-two seconds left to keep Denver up three and set up a nail biting finish. Jackson couldn’t convert on Memphis’ end and Jokic knocked down the free throws on the other end to ice a knock-down, drag-out affair for Denver. Nuggets escape 108-104.

Best matchup: Jamal Murray vs Marcus Smart

Oct 27, 2023; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) handles the ball as Memphis Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart (36) defends during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Jamal carried the Nuggets on offense for long periods of the game in this one. He ended up scoring twenty-two points and handed out five assists to go with it. Murray is Malone’s go to guy to carry the Jokic bench minutes and he did a decent job of it tonight. Matched up against Smart is never an easy task and Marcus certainly had his moments as well helping to bog down Denver’s offense. He also had a solid night offensively. Smart had a very efficient twenty points on thirteen shots and shot it well from three. It’s apparent the Grizzlies are still figuring out how their offense will work without Ja Morant and tonight Smart’s performance almost got his team a win. In the end it was Murray with the last laugh though.

Key takeaway: Nuggets bench had it’s moments

Ultimately, Denver’s bench was a negative on the evening after giving up a 4th quarter run that briefly gave the Grizzlies the lead but they had some bright moments as well. Watson’s defense was fantastic tonight. He tallied three blocks and a steal. Nnaji also was impressive on both ends. He showed toughness in the paint and had no fear of Jackson Jr., including a straight up man block of the reigning DPOY’s layup attempt. The box score will say he had no offensive rebounds but on more than one occasion down the stretch he extended possessions by tipping the ball to teammates after missed shot attempts. Lastly, Reggie Jackson was the scorer off the bench Denver needed. There were stretches in both halves where the Nuggets offense stalled save for Jackson either knocking down shots or setting up his teammates for easy looks. Denver’s bench outscored Memphis’ by 13 points and was key to the victory.

The thing to bet hits again: Jokic under 27.5 pts (-110)

2-0 on the season with my pregame bets. Joker ground out a very respectable 22/12/7 night but as is often the case when playing against the Grizzlies in Memphis, he struggled to score. Memphis often let Tillman defend Jokic while letting Jackson Jr. roam and that had some success. A lot of Jokic’s offensive struggles came as a result of his turnovers tonight though (he had nine). The Grizzlies swarmed Jokic often with double teams causing him to give up the ball, either with a clean pass or a turnover. All in all you have to applaud Memphis’ effort against the reigning Finals MVP and Jokic’s effort to fight through a tough game and still come up with some big shots at the end.