As the Denver Nuggets preseason has gone thus far, Denver’s game in San Fransisco against the Warriors was a series of peaks and valleys.

At times, the Nuggets looked like the truly frightening group they can be when dialed in and motivated. At others, they were lethargic and lacked the fight needed to compete with Golden State.

As the game waned into the latter portion of the third quarter, the Nuggets — specifically Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic — stepped and took back the lead which they handed off to the bench unit which they ballooned before the buzzer sounded and the Nuggets came away with another win.

The Nuggets won 119-112 and, with the preseason now in the review mirror with a 3-2 recored, everything ahead is what matters. Denver got better and more cohesive, but the real challenge still awaits.

1st Quarter

  • For much of the first quarter, Michael Porter Jr.’s shot could not be touched. Were they the best looks he could have gotten? Definitley not, but regardless of the difficulty, Porter made it look easy.
  • Most think anyone could step on the court with Nikola Jokic and benefit from playing alongside him, but there is without a doubt a learning curve for new players to work through. There was no better example of this than when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope cut into the lane, but did not turn to look for the ball as Jokic rocketed a pass by his ear. Caldwell-Pope is fitting in well early on, but there are still some growing pains to work out.
  • Aaron Gordon being the fourth or fifth option on offense might unlock his game in a way that making him an offensive priority never allowed. The constraints of having no choice but to play with the ball in his hands limited his offensive rebounding, his grab-and-go transition attacks against mismatches, and his discreet and impactful cutting which allows him to show his strength and athleticism around the rim. Not only those issues, but more importantly it sapped his energy. Now, being a fourth or fifth option, he can focus on defense and get his points in the flow of the offense which should frighten all Nuggets opponents as he did against Golden State.
  • Bruce Brown has all of the skills to shine with the Nuggets. Not only is he the utility perimeter defender they have longed for, but he has shown a decent touch shooting from three-point range and a lot of skill with the ball in his hands. Brown has been running point guard and even started at that position last night. His bag of tricks seems limitless.

Score: 32-28 with the Nuggets leading.

2nd Quarter

  • Bones Hyland has proven to be much more comfortable drawing shooting fouls than many expected him to be. It could be a combination of his fearlessness and recklessness going towards the rim, but there seems to be more intent behind his play than that. Regardless, he showed early in the second quarter that he can get to the line when needed.
  • Christian Braun is still finding his footing in the NBA. While many want him to be the first wing off the bench, it takes time to acclimate to the NBA. Braun was making the wrong defensive rotations, giving up an offensive rebound because he did not box out, and has continued to struggle when forced to dribble. He has a lot of promise, but is he ready for big-time minutes right now? The answer has not been a definitive yes at this point.
  • That being said, Davon Reed did not separate himself from Braun either in their position battle. He also struggled to box out, missed his outside jumpers early on, and his defense was on par with Braun’s impact.
  • While the DeAndre Jordan’s deal with Denver surprised many — myself included — James Wiseman hurting Denver in the second quarter is perfect evidence as to why Denver needed a true backup center to match up physically with those other gargantuan reserve bigs.
  • Nuggets bench unit began to miss shots at the rim which allowed the Warriors to get out and run which pushed the Warriors back into the drivers seat with the lead secured at halftime.
  • As a treat, the Nuggets did run some Gordon/Jokic pick and roll action to success in the latter half of the second quarter. Again, Gordon might be unleashed this season.
  • As the second quarter came to a close, the Nuggets starters began to let off the gas which allowed the Warriors to go on one of their patented demoralizing runs.

Score: 56-64 with the Warriors leading.

3rd Quarter

  • Denver came out of halftime the same way they entered it; lethargic and passive. Because of that, the Warriors continued to pile on top of their lead.
  • Denver’s defense was bad at the point of attack and in transition; hallmarks of a lack of energy.
  • Still, Porter decided to go ballistic as he fired away from anywhere he felt within half court and making a large chunk of his attempt. His scoring kept Denver close when it seemed like the wheels were falling off,
  • As the game got closer and the Warriors lead continued to evaporate, Denver’s determination on defense continued to spike eventually resulting in the Nuggets reclaiming the lead with five minutes left in the third frame.
  • From there, Denver’s bench took over.

Score: 98-84 with the Nuggets leading.

4th Quarter

Instead of going bullet point by bullet point, I want to talk about one player; Ish Smith.

Coming into the season, I had one worry about the roster construction and that was the amount of perimeter playmaking Denver had. When Denver traded Monte Morris and Will Barton III for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and signed Bruce Brown, it seems like there was a glut of finishers and a lack of creators. Well, there was one player overlooked in that trade.

Smith has been playing point guard at a competent and steady level for years and years. He knows the game and how to win. For the Nuggets, who are relying heavily on second-year gunner Hyland to run the second unit, having the safety blanket of Smith is a big deal.

Smith has played extremely well all preseason long. He has hit his mid-range looks, spaced the floor, and ran the offense when asked to do so. While much of the attention has been on whether Reed, Braun, or Nnaji will lock themselves into the rotation, Smith has quietly positioned himself to play with Hyland off the bench with regularity. Smith’s steady hand could prove to be more valuable than the defense or shooting of all other options and he proved that yet again in a fourth quarter with the game close.

Smith was masterful to end the game as he led a random assortment of two-way contract guys and end of bench players to a win. He is making a real case to steal one of the backup guard spots.

Final Score: 119-112 with the Nuggets winning.

Stat leaders

Points: Hyland – 18

Rebounds: Gordon – 12

Assists: Gordon – 7

Plus/minus: Hyland – +14