They’ve still got it
Nikola Jokić – A+
Jokić dropped a bonafide reminder game in a head-to-head matchup with fellow MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks were playing for the second night in a row, but boasting the NBA’s best record and defense, they still represented a legitimate test for the Nuggets. And with DPOY candidate Brook Lopez on the roster, it’s also an excellent test for Jokić. He passed with flying colors.
Jokić went right at and through Lopez. It was clear within minutes how badly he wanted this one, and he never let up. Jokić torched the one on one coverage and played tug of war with the defense over the spacing. He took six threes on the night, trying to punish the paint-bound Lopez or possibly lure him out from his turf. Lopez played exceptional defense, too. Jokić worked hard for those points, but with a glint of determination in his eye, the results were inevitable. That’s what playoff Jokić looks like, lest anyone forget. Inevitable.
Jamal Murray – A
If you’ve ever sat through pregame availability before a Bucks game, you know about Jrue Holiday. He comes up every time. Possibly the best perimeter defender in the league, stamped as a winner—the prize of a championship-winning trade. It’s all true, and yet Murray outplayed him in Denver. He dropped 18 points in the first quarter, shooting 4 of 6 from deep. While he went thermonuclear, it was process related, too. Murray didn’t hesitate on the open threes and kept Denver in the game through the first 12 minutes. He picked up nine assists and six rebounds as well. There’s an innate competitiveness that drives Murray. Inconsistency across 82 notwithstanding, you know what to expect from him in big games.
Michael Porter Jr. – A-
Porter is no longer an afterthought in these games. Or he shouldn’t be, anyway. There’s a chance some teams are working with antiquated scouting on MPJ and his impact in Denver. As Milwaukee keyed in on Denver’s bread-and-butter offense, they needed to focus more on the third wheel. After a quiet start, MPJ blew past Khris Middleton, put an errant floater up over Lopez, got the board, and put it back for two. That got him going. Milwaukee slipped up from there. They lost him in transition, went under on a screen, and dared to assign Joe Ingles to him for a short stretch. Porter punished the mistakes.
Aaron Gordon – B
Gordon took the unenviable task of guarding Giannis for most of the game. It did not go his way in the first half. The former MVP looked like a demigod blowing his cover amongst mere mortals. He looked like Teen Wolf embracing his new reality. He was unstoppable, in a word. Much of it occurred in transition, and Jeff Green was on the wrong end of some buckets. Still, Gordon looked helpless on a small handful of possessions. He also got into some early foul trouble.
Things changed, however, in the second half. With the benefit of some timely stunts and late doubles, AG and his teammates slowed him down before the tired legs kicked in and finished the job. Gordon earned the coveted DPOG chain for his troubles. He has two responsibilities in this matchup — defend like hell and rebound the ball. He did both well Saturday night.
KCP – B
With the Bucks’ size, and the two centers exchanging threes, gang-rebounding was paramount Saturday night. All four of Jokić’s co-starters rebounded well, particularly Kenny Pope, who led the team with eight. He nearly posted a double-double, logging 11 points despite not taking a single three. He did a fine job on Middleton as well.
Jeff Green – B-
When it wasn’t AG, it was Green guarding Giannis. That was the nightmare it sounds like in the first half, yet it went surprisingly well in the second. Green ultimately defended well, grabbed a few rebounds, and — let’s see. Did I forget something?
What kind of madman sees Giannis there and loads up for an off-hand dunk — after slipping? The dunking uncle strikes again.
Bruce Brown – B
Brown is trending back in the right direction. He got the three-ball to fall this time, got involved in the group rebounding effort, and defended with a high motor. The rotation, while still flawed, is healing without Reggie Jackson. Bruce is among the top beneficiaries.
Christian Braun – C+
It looks like an F in the box score, but Braun did what was asked of him off the bench. He might be the only player on the roster that could log those numbers and draw praise. He is a young man of focus and dedication to defense. Murray lauded his effort during the postgame availability. He gave credit to Zeke Nnaji as well.
Zeke Nnaji – B
Nnaji turned in great minutes off the bench Saturday night. He rebounded well, defended well, and confidently finished at the rim. His work rate was high, and his actions showed an appropriate sense of urgency. He was even setting his screens with purpose and attention to detail. The Nnaji featured bench is flawed, but it’s the best-looking bench we’ve seen all season.