The Denver Nuggets regained their winning ways 119-110 over the Memphis Grizzlies. Nikola Jokic notched another triple double with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists despite fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Jamal Murray and Will Barton struggled with their outside shots but had some great finishes at the rim, and Michael Porter Jr. logged 19 minutes to get his 11 points to help the bench scoring. Jaren Jackson Jr. led the Grizzlies with 20 points but an 11 point first quarter for the Grizzlies doomed them in this game.

Plumlee started for Paul Millsap, out with a leg injury. Nikola Jokic started with a three attempt that missed, Gary Harris got a steal and Plumlee got one in off the glass for a quick 4-0 lead. Jaren Jackson Jr. hit a three but Denver stretched the lead to 10-3 with all ten points in the paint. The Nuggets then went cold from the field until Jokic buried a three shots including a three to make it 17-6 Denver. After another three for 14 quick Jokic points in 8 minutes, Jamal Murray had a great drive from three point line to finish at the rim with Denver in complete control of the quarter. Plumlee got a reverse layup as they kept attacking the paint but also got his second foul, causing Denver to to centerless. Juancho Hernangomez and Michael Porter Jr. closed out a 26-11 first quarter with Jerami Grant at the 5 and a ton of hustle on both ends.

Porter started he the second quarter with a steal on one end, a three pointer on the other and then a block on defense again. Denver’s guards rebounded well but the team got a bit three-point-happy, missing most of them. A rebound and another quick three from Porter made it 34-13 Denver, though. 

Ja Morant started attacking the basket more but without much success. Denver had success with its big lineups and small lineups as the Nuggets mixed starters and bench far more than is usual for them, trying to make up for Millsap’s absence. Jokic came back in around the five minute mark and immediately hit Murray for a dunk. It was Murray’s second dunk that really got the fans up though:

Jokic got his third foul shortly after with Denver up 45-24 and had to sit, though, and Denver went back to the small lineup with Plumlee also sitting with 3 fouls. Memphis went on a run to cut it to a 15 point deficit as that lineup had trouble maximizing its strengths, and despite some hustle from its players they allowed a last-second uncontested dunk and went to the break up just 50-39.

Memphis opened the third quarter with a paint bucket after being outscored 17-5 in the last 4+ minutes of the second quarter. Murray fouled a three point shooter while Memphis attacked Jokic trying to get the fourth foul on him. Denver’s starting guards shot 8 for their first 28, really hampering the offense. Denver’s lead fell to just 3 at 52-49 when the Jokic-to-Murray connection paid off with a drive and a foul as Plumlee came in for Grant. Denver forced the lead back to 10 as Memphis attempted to flop fouls on both Jokic and Plumlee to no avail. Barton finally started connecting after starting the game 2-for-10, hitting a 15-footer and a step back three to increase Denver’s lead and a Jokic tip-in made it 68-53 Nuggets. Jokic then finally got some free throw trips and follows in the paint to put himself up to 27 points and Denver up 77-61 near the end of the quarter. Barton and Jokic’s two-man game was dominant in the second half of the quarter and Porter’s three in the final second was the difference in making it a winning quarter 32-29 and leading 82-68 after three.

Ja Morant and Monte Morris traded threes to open the fourth quarter. Valanciunas hit in the paint and a pair from deep to cut it to single digits, and tied up Murray to force (and then win) a jump ball. Denver’s lead fell to 91-83 without Jokic in the game. When Jokic came back in, though, the energy picked up and he threw a long pass for his seventh assist and this no-look follow-up:

A dunk from Barton on a Grant drive pulled the lead out to double digits again but Memphis put together a 9-2 run to make it 102-95 before Jokic finished in the paint again. With help from Barton the Nuggets pushed the lead back to double digits with three minutes to go. Jerami Grant slammed home Jokic’s tenth assist right before Jokic fouled out to a standing ovation with Denver up 115-101 and under two minutes to go. Denver closed out the game for a final score of 119-110, doing a lot of the work in the paint and defending the home court like they did not at Christmas.

Three thoughts

– MPJ had his best stint of the year. 11 minutes in the first half produced 8 points, 3 rebounds, two steals, a block and tons of effort on both ends. He stayed in position on defense for the most part and attacked the boards and the basket. As our own Ryan Blackburn pointed out, the bench outside of Porter had just 3 points in the first half. For the first game in weeks he got a second stint at the end of the third quarter and finished with 19 minutes after spending the past 6 games without more than 10. He wasn’t given the opportunity to take a lot of shots in his second stint but was still active on offense and made himself available. This was a nice encapsulation of what Denver hopes Porter can do for them in more consistent minutes. 

– Nuggets still can’t get early respect from the refs. They were outshot 16-0 from the free throw line in the first half, and while I know that’s the way the refs keep blowout games closer it’s still frustrating to see Jokic sitting on the bench with ticky tack fouls while he gets hammered without getting a call. Denver is 28th out of 30 teams in free throws attempted and just can’t seem to buy consistent trips to the line. They’re 22nd in two-point percentage, so it’s not just that they’re making all their shots instead of getting fouled. They’re just not getting foul calls, and at some point that has to change. Nikola Jokic is a superstar in this league, a first-team All-NBA talent and I hoped that would finally get him calls from the refs. It finally came around in the second half and those correct foul calls helped spell the difference, though Jokic still fouled out on the sort of touch fouls that are not called in their favor much.

– Denver has to stop squandering all these huge leads. Denver winds up with 20+ point leads that get whittled to single digits or even lost entirely in too many games. They don’t sit on teams but instead let them back in whenever they’d like. The Nuggets have to figure out how to put a boot on an opponent’s throat instead of apologizing for building too large of a cushion. In this game some of that was simply offensive ineptitude from the guards for long stretches but Denver’s bench scoring woes for much of this year have meant that the starters have to carry the scoring load. That creates an awful lot of variance but even with poor outside shooting the Nuggets managed to close the game out with cuts to the basket off of Jokic passes or follows. It’s just hard to do that when he’s on the bench, and Denver has to solve that problem soon.