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As it turns out, the Nuggets were ready for Game One. So were their fans.
Nikola Jokić – A–
Denver sprinted out of the gate in the series opener, not lacking energy or focus in front of an electric crowd. They were dialed in defensively from the jump, but it took a while for the shots to fall. That’s where the two-time MVP and world’s greatest offensive player can come in handy.
Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were slow to warm up, so Jokić had to be aggressive early. He obliged, carving the Wolves’ front court up with ease. He was balletic in the paint and artistic in his playmaking. It’s easy to say now what should have been clear then — the Wolves didn’t stand a chance Sunday evening.
Jokić’s first genuine hurdle came defensively, as a pick-and-roll featuring Kyle Anderson resulted in a handful of easy looks from floater range. But Jokić found another gear as the night went on. His work rate distribution shifted dramatically after halftime. The lion’s share of his impact came on the defensive end as Denver’s starting lineup came to life. He did well defending near the rim in the second half, earning praise from Michael Malone and Porter Jr. after the game.
The Nuggets pulled away in the third quarter, and Minnesota pulled the plug late in the fourth. Somehow, Jokić found himself on the floor with the result well in hand. Malone apparently felt there were some final nails to hammer home. It would be irresponsible to say that Jokić then fouled out on purpose. I haven’t asked him, and there’s no proof. Still, I bet you’ve asked yourself the question. I have too.
Jamal Murray – A-
Murray got a rough start in his first playoff game since the bubble. He bricked a handful of open jumpers before eventually turning them down. He grimaced and grabbed at his troublesome thumb. That playoff spark that’s defined his career to date was absent. Of course, as we’ve learned over the years, we can save our definitive analysis of a Murray performance until the final whistle. All he needs is to see one fall. He saw quite a few fall before the night was up.
Murray dominated the second half leading all scorers in that stretch with 15 points. That spark mentioned above defined the remainder of his game. He scored, he barked, and he grinned. He tapped back into playoff Jamal, making an overall impact in a dominant win. Murray rebounded well, factored into some good defensive possessions, and did a great job protecting the ball. He may have started poorly, but he played himself into form.
Michael Porter Jr. – A-
Mike and Jamal were in the same boat to start the game. Hard as they tried, they were rowing upstream. Open looks clanked off the rim as Jokić found them again and again. A younger Porter might have retreated into his head on a night like this. This Porter, a considerably more mature player, had other ideas. He attacked the glass and eventually the rim, getting himself going in other areas than shooting — just as he learned to do in the regular season. Porter held his own defensively, too. He had a handful of disruptive stunts, delaying some drives to the rim, if not derailing them altogether. He made multiple efforts and worked hard to contest shooters on the perimeter.
Porter told the media that rebounding would be an area of emphasis this postseason. He identified it as a swing factor in Denver’s wins and losses this year and thought he could make an impact there. Jokić is a space octopus, as is well documented. Still, rebounding should be a group effort. MPJ told us he relayed the message to Aaron Gordon before the game. They’ve got to have Jokić’s back in that battle. Mission accomplished for Porter, who recorded the fourth double-double of his playoff career.
Aaron Gordon – B+
Foul trouble limited Gordon’s playing time and forced some early adjustments to Malone’s rotation. That’s the biggest knock on a player under the microscope in this series. When AG was on the floor, we saw plenty to be encouraged by. He shot the three-ball and his free throws confidently. He didn’t shy away from the physicality of his matchup or the inevitable contests on his typically open looks at the rim. He snatched a soul early in the game with a crowd-pleasing dunk.
As for the big questions about Gordon’s involvement in this series, we got some answers. Rudy Gobert is “guarding” him, as we anticipated. He’s sagging off with an entire eye on number 15 as he roams the paint. AG will play backup center in the non-Jokić minutes, as he did before foul trouble forced a withdrawal and exchange for DeAndre Jordan, who played well. Gordon’s most significant task will be slowing Karl-Anthony Towns, and the biggest challenge will be doing so without fouling. Mr. Nugget has plenty to build off of and learn from after game one.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A
KCP was outstanding in his playoff debut as a member of the Denver Nuggets. He shot the ball well, especially from deep, which is the first layer of his contribution most nights in the regular season. But Denver also acquired Pope for what he can do on defense, especially in the playoffs, and he showed out Sunday night. He was outstanding at the point of attack, leading the charge as Denver recorded perhaps the most impressive munder* of the Jokić-era.
(*Held them under 100, if you’re new here)*
*Or 80, in this case.
Bruce Brown – A-
The Nuggets didn’t just dominate the Jokić minutes. The bench played well too, and Bruce Brown led the way. While Brown’s decisive drives to the rim teeter on the line of control, they’re also an important element of this team’s offense. Sometimes you need a role player to step up and drive fearlessly. Brown’s willing to be that guy in Denver. It worked out for the Nuggets in game one — he led all bench players with 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting. He was also a menace defensively.
Jeff Green – C
Green’s box score is unflattering, but every Nugget we spoke to postgame found time to shout him out. The effort was there, they said. Unfortunately, the production wasn’t. If you were wondering how much Green might play in the postseason, early returns indicate Malone will lean on the veteran.
Christian Braun – B+
The rookie made his playoff debut and impressed his teammates with roughly 20 minutes of his typical production. As you might expect of a defense-led win, Braun factored into the mayhem. He was in the thick of it, so much so that he got caught up with Kyle Anderson in the second half. Anderson briefly went after the rookie after they got tangled, and Braun smiled as the tension rose. He’s not known to start altercations in Denver, but he’s not one to walk away. The crowd reached its crescendo as the two players were separated.
The Crowd – A+
I’ve only been credentialed here for about five years. As far as I’ve seen, that’s your most impressive performance so far, Denver.