The Denver Nuggets played an awkward and frustrating game against the Memphis Grizzlies but prevailed in the end, 108-102 after leading by 15 with 10 minutes to go. The Nuggets shot 55% from the field but had 23 turnovers and were out-rebounded by the Grizzlies 40-37 (and 17-6 on the offensive glass). The Nuggets hit just 6 of 22 three-point attempts but had a parade to the free throw line and made just enough plays to hold on for victory. Gary Harris led the way with 26 points, followed by Will Barton’s 24 and Paul Millsap’s 15 points and 7 rebounds and 5 steals in 27 minutes. Nikola Jokic had a quiet 9 point, 9 rebound, 5 assist and 5 turnover night (with 5 fouls) against Marc Gasol’s 22 points and 9 rebounds. All the Memphis starters were in double figures, but it wasn’t quite enough for the Grizzlies despite Denver sleep-walking through some key moments.

Denver missed a pair of threes to start the game but Wilson Chandler opened the scoring with a step-back 2. It would be his only bucket of the night. Memphis answered with a pair of made threes while Gary Harris answered back with one of his own, but the pace wasn’t right for Denver early. The Nuggets found their groove over the next couple of minutes with a 9-0 run to go up 11-6 as they created some turnovers and transition pressure.  Millsap had a nice paint bucket and a great pass to Harris for an And-1. Some poor choices from Chandler in isolation and Murray getting a charge in transition let Memphis keep it close, though, as the Grizzlies got in the paint at will and kept the lead to one or two buckets. A great steal-and-dunk finished by Harris put Denver up 23-16 with Gary contributing 10 of the points, but stops were harder to come by.

Denver kept up its own paint attack, however, capped by a reverse slam by Mason Plumlee off a Devin Harris miss, but the Grizzlies countered with a steal for a dunk and a wide open three. There wasn’t much defense in the quarter and low-scoring Memphis nearly cracked 30 in the first to stay close, down 35-29 to Denver. 

Barton opened the second quarter with a three, then committed his third turnover of the game so far. Memphis hits another three of their own from Wayne Selden to cut the lead back to 40-34.  Devin Harris finished a drive, made a three, then got fouled on another three to push the lead back to 14. The Nuggets then got lax with soft paint defense and a lax turnover on back-to-back plays and Memphis brought it back to 48-40. Barton hit a three and Millsap took a Barton miss and turned it into a jam to increase the breathing room. 

A Millsap three made it a 16 point lead again but Denver got outhustled and out-fought for rebounds and steals for a couple of minutes as Memphis cut it down to 11. The teams played some out-of-control ball trying to get an edge and with Denver turning the ball over it let Memphis stay in the game despite Barton’s buzzer-beating two. The halftime lead was just 9 at 63-54 for Denver despite shooting 60+ percent thanks to 13 first half turnovers and a lack of consistent rebounding. 

Gasol started the second half scoring for Memphis. Millsap drew three quick fouls on Jarell Martin to put him at five fouls for the game and make him sit with his game-high 16 points. The two teams traded both buckets and mistakes for the next couple of minutes, but Murray started to find his stroke as he scored 7 points in a row for the Nuggets to push the lead to 74-62. Denver couldn’t bear down and go on any serious run, though. Memphis ran off of every Nuggets miss and cut the lead to 7 at 76-69 with 5 minutes left in the third as Denver’s pull-up jumpers wouldn’t fall. The Nuggets switched back to attacking the paint with more success, with Gary especially finishing with dunks on baseline cuts and in transition. 

But Denver couldn’t quite shut down the second chance points from Memphis and the Grizzlies snared a wide open dunk at the end of the quarter to let Memphis stay within 11 at 91-80.

Barton slammed a dunk home to answer at the start of the fourth, followed by Plumlee. Their ambivalence about getting defensive rebounds and maintaining their own offense allowed the Grizzlies to take a 15 point lead down to 4 with eight minutes to go. Will Barton and Trey Lyles both hit exceedingly tough jumpers. 

Marc Gasol put his team on his shoulders for a few on both ends, keeping the Grizzlies down just 3 at 101-98 with 4 minutes to go. Denver had a stretch of turnovers and an inability to finish during the Memphis 18-6 run.

And then Gasol went down with a twisted ankle after stepping on Paul Millsap’s foot, and was charged with a technical foul on top of it. The Nuggets missed the foul shot naturally, but a Jokic-to-Harris lob pushed it to a two-possession game. Jamal Murray fouled out with a couple of stupid fouls and the Nuggets up just two with 1:38 to go after the free throws, 104-102.

Gary Harris his a tough step-back over two defenders, Millsap grabbed a rebound off a Gasol three-point miss, but a 24 second violation by the Nuggets after Jokic got stripped for Denver’s 23rd turnover left Memphis with life. Marc Gasol got stripped on the ensuing drive by Mason Plumlee (who was Jokic’s defensive replacement), Denver hit a pair of free throws and the Nuggets escaped with the victory 108-102.

Final Thoughts

Denver had better find its Want-To, fast. The Grizzlies had more fast-break points, “caused” 20+ turnovers, and hit the offensive boards like it would bring them one of those giant carnival stuffed animals as a prize.  The Nuggets reached on defense, paused for pull-up jumpers with double digits left on the shot clock, turned the ball over carelessly and generally played with a distinct lack of urgency. Denver’s offense was mostly guard-oriented tonight with Millsap as the pivot instead of Jokic, which was partly Memphis’s doing and partly Jokic’s. The Grizzlies had lost 11 in a row and were severely undermanned in a game that Denver won by the skin of its teeth. Jamal Murray even fouled out with a pair of terrible choices in a game that was a couple of plays from going to overtime. That’s not a playoff-quality performance. There were plenty of bonehead plays to go around, but the lack of chemistry and conversation between Denver’s front court with Millsap back for his second game following a three-month layoff was noticeable.

Focus on the details, Nuggets – without getting so wrapped up in the little things that it takes you out of the game. Looking at you, Jokic; letting the other team push you out of your offense for large stretches can’t happen.

Denver’s rebounding has been regressing and its attention to detail is not improving. The little mistakes that let Memphis stay close (and that almost cost Denver the game) will cause losses against better teams. They HAVE caused losses, and the Nuggets did not show the urgency to correct those issues that I was hoping to see tonight. Denver needed the win and got it, but all the same questions remain about the upside for this season and even making the playoffs.

They have to correct that focus, and fast.