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Denver Nuggets Go Off Against Cleveland's Top-Ranked Defense

Brendan Vogt Avatar
January 7, 2023

Nikola Jokić – A

Michael Malone pondered the best route. He had a mic drop in mind, but he’s never one to disrespect an opponent. He sat with the question about Jokić’s output against Cleveland’s mighty defense before stating matter of factly: “Nikola doesn’t see Defensive Player Of The Year guys.”

We can at least say that Jarrett Allen made Jokić work for his 28-point triple-double, but Denver generated easy offense against a stalwart outfit. It all started with Jokić, of course. It always does.

Since his greatness is routine, and his impact is inevitably taken for granted, let’s focus on what looked different about his dominance this time. The back-to-back MVP shot 3 of 4 from deep against the Cavaliers. The fourth one nearly fell. Each went up with noticeable confidence from a player with really but one weakness offensively right now. His three-point shot—once a weapon—has escaped him for most of the season, but he’s quietly finding his touch from a distance.

Reaction to this league is rife with excited hyperbole. We dream about optimal outcomes and dish out bloated versions of our truest beliefs. Still, if Jokić is shooting from 3 reliably, this league is in for a long handful of years. We’d be watching a truly unstoppable player.

Jamal Murray – B+

For the first time since returning from his ACL recovery, Murray played both games in a back-to-back. It’s a significant hurdle for him to clear and for the team in turn. Murray’s been candid with the media about the soreness in his knee and his willingness—or lack thereof—to test it. To play, and play well, has to build some confidence in himself.

As for regularly scheduled programming, Murray was again the first starter off the floor, eventually sharing it with the bench. Like a kid in middle school, that lineup is desperately searching for an identity. They don’t even know who they want to be. For now, it features a lot of dribbling from Bones Hyland and some observable frustration from Murray. It’s tough to look at. It’s their Hot Topic phase.

Malone wants one of his two best players on the floor at all times, and that’s a step in the right direction. But he and his staff have their work cut out for them with that group. It’s hard even to picture the desired result at this point.

Michael Porter Jr. – B

Porter isn’t likely to shed his initial reputation as a putrid defender and boom-or-bust prospect. That much becomes apparent when you take in as much feedback as I do — from the Diehards to the distant and surly fans. It’s fair to question Porter’s reliability, given the medical concerns. Still, the consistency, the effort, the impact — many of those criticisms are already antiquated, even if they continue to flood in.

His game against Cleveland was an excellent example. He didn’t shoot well from the field, but he played well. He played winning basketball against an elite and gargantuan defense. His effort on the glass was impressive.

There are good-faith arguments for questioning his utility when pursuing a championship. But if we’re going to spend so much time putting his mistakes under a microscope, we should do the same for his incremental improvements.

Aaron Gordon – B

AG warmed up in one of Bones Hyland’s official T-Shirts. Operating with the smoothness and awareness of a man on the campaign trail. Does Gordon know about Mr. Nugget? I doubt it. But I’ve little doubt left he’s earned the title.

I first coined the term when attempting to articulate Gary Harris’ importance to the team and fan base, and I can’t shake the similarities between the players. There’s the Orlando-Denver connection. The players were literally in the same trade, of course. But the list runs much longer.

Harris was the only Nugget actually to visit Jokić in Serbia. He delighted the Diehards with a trip to Belgrade and even Sombor. Of course, Gordon famously traveled to Prague this summer to watch Jokić play with team Serbia. It drew a similar reaction online. As for on the court, both players figured out how to get the best out of themselves through efficient movement alongside Jokić. Vlatko Čančar even compared their respective chemistry with the MVP.

This moniker is meant for the base. It’s not meant to appeal to a wider audience. The context belongs to us, as does the discourse. Somehow, AG fits poetically into the concept.

Gordon’s become a player worthy of attention here in Denver, but no one sees his value like Nuggets fans. No one understands how he’s ingratiated himself through good play and embraced being a Nugget like Harris and Monte Morris once did. He may not get that All-Star appearance this season, but that’s how Nuggets fans will view him going forward. The fans here will be happy as long as he’s wearing the uniform. For now, it seems that feeling is mutual. Denver is where you come to thrive quietly. To find contentment and balance in your day-to-day life. And to do it all while few are watching. In that sense, AG fits right in as a Coloradan.

Gordon is a fan of his teammates, a fan favorite, and an elite partner for the best player in the organization’s history. He is Mr. Nugget.


Pope is one of the most potent weapons in the league right now from deep. Almost every shot looks good off the hands; enough of them have fallen to inspire irrational confidence. Like Porter at his best, I half-expect them all to drop.

Bruce Brown – B+

Brown carries a chip on his shoulder. He’s a respectful and approachable guy, but just ask how teams guard him. “I don’t know when they’re going to start running us off the line,” he said after the game. A statement filled with half-humor, half-bitterness. He clearly feels disrespected, but a big part of him is enjoying the space and green light to let it fly. “I’m going to shoot it,” he replied when asked about defenders going under on screens.

Of course, Brown’s impact in Denver has extended well beyond the production from 3. He plays basketball like Sonic The Hedgehog. I can’t wrap my head around how much ground he can cover or how little exhaustion factors into his approach.

Bones Hyland – B-

Bones knocked down his shots and showed an endearing fearlessness in attacking the rim despite Cleveland’s size. In many ways, he played well. But he got into trouble in his final stint, earning an ill-advised technical and briefly losing his cool. Malone pulled him from the game and spent some time talking to him on the bench. Hyland looked unhappy, but Malone told the media he simply reminded his player that he helped the team win.

Vlatko Čančar – C+

Vlatko is playing consistently for the Nuggets after years of warming the end of the bench. After the game, Jokić spoke at length about the unfair framing of Vlatko’s career in Denver. “I don’t like that people think he is just my friend,” Jokić said. He called it “disrespectful” and listed myriad ways in which Vlatko can help any NBA team. Friendship aside, that’s an earnest stamp from one of the best ever to play.

DeAndre Jordan – B

The switch-inclined second unit got bullied in their first stint by a staggered Evan Mobley. They had no answer, so Malone opted for more size and rebounding with DAJ in the second half. Jordan took home co-DPOG chain(s) with Murray and genuinely played well in limited time.

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