Nikola Jokić – A
It became clear early on that Jokić wouldn’t have to force the issue Saturday night. That’s just fine with the new league leader in total assists. Jokić moved past Trae Young, who missed the game, after recording another triple-double in a Nuggets win. He shot over 50% from the field again, something he’s failed to do only once this season. He was predictably excellent, but not the story Saturday night. His partner in pick-and-roll crime, Jamal Murray, stole the show.
Jamal Murray – A+
41-piece. Murray went off for his first 40+ performance since returning from injury. He got there with a relentless air raid, shooting 7 of 12 from deep and helping keep pace with a red-hot Hawks offense. And he finished the job in style, getting his 40th point with an emphatic dunk in transition. His confidence is off the charts, and he’s rounding into form here as we near the All-Star break. Injuries or not, this is typically when Murray flips the proverbial switch in the season. He’s long been effective but is back to delivering transcendent performances right on schedule.
He’s taking a lot of 3s right now, which might be about chasing down Will Barton’s record. But the approach is welcome and worth exploring long after the inevitable occurs. It expands the range of the two-man game. It’s hard enough to contend with the various counters available to Jokić and Murray in the standard action. It’s virtually impossible if you have to worry about a quick trigger from Murray beyond the perimeter. And even outside of the two-man game, just chasing guards out there can be exhausting. Let it fly, 27.
Michael Porter Jr. – A-
Denver kept Porter involved from the opening tip to the final possessions of the blowout win. He was absurdly effective in the first quarter. We’ve seen Murray Flurries, and we’ve Porter Quarters. Rarely have we seen them occur at the same time. After Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the game early with an ankle injury, Porter took his place as the starter staggered with the bench in the second half. He got aggressive, which yielded suboptimal results. But the approach is tenable. That new-look bench will score little in the half-court. Porter can explore his first option-type shots should we see that group again. They need the juice.
Aaron Gordon – B+
There’s something immensely satisfying about checking AG’s box score on a night when the above three all played well. How did he fill in the cracks this time? An efficient 15 points, six rebounds, four assists, one block, and zero turnovers. AG is ideally suited for this style of basketball.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – N/A
Pope hurt his ankle after A.J. Griffin closed out into his landing space. Remarkably, there was no call. He remained in the game to finish his stint but returned from the locker room in street clothes to start the second half.
Bruce Brown – C-
Brown’s motor was out in front of his body Saturday night. He played full-speed ahead, which can yield positive results. But it backfired against the Hawks. He was a touch out of control, smoking finishes and picking up a couple of turnovers. He was ultimately a part of a success story in the second unit. They’re capable of treading water when they get stops. But he didn’t play a great game.
Christian Braun – A-
If not for that little 40-piece from Murray, Braun might have been the story against Atlanta. He played well with the second unit and then filled in admirably for KCP alongside the starters. He was exceptional defensively and turned in perhaps the best performance of his nascent career. He scored confidently, rebounded well, and dished out a couple of nice passes. Harrison Wind even declared he’d entered the circle of trust. It was only a matter of time.
Vlatko Čančar – C
Vlatko played in Jeff Green’s stead, a welcome change to the rotation. Ironically, Vlatko didn’t play his best game. But he defended well and played with a high work rate on both ends. That’s the most significant difference in their respective presence on the court.
Zeke Nnaji – B
While Nnaji never dominates a game, his presence has changed life for the better in the second unit. He’s a considerably more versatile defender than DeAndre Jordan, and his value popped as the second unit did their thing in the first half. His defense was excellent, and he rebounded well too.