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Nikola Jokić – A+
When you cover Nikola Jokić for a living, you receive a side education on some unexpected subjects. I’ve learned more about Serbian culture than I ever guessed I would. And I could say the same about the great and potentially mythical Wilt Chamberlain. We might as well be on his beat.
Jokić dropped 30-12-12 on 77% from the field with no turnovers on the NBA’s best team so far. As it turns out, he and Wilt are the only players in NBA history to post multiple 30-point triple-doubles while shooting at least 75% from the field.
That’s a friendly reminder not to take his greatness for granted, which is becoming virtually impossible. The press made it through almost an entire post-game session without asking about his performance. Can you blame us? It’s not the story anymore. It’s the expectation.
Aaron Gordon – A-
Gordon’s earned much praise for his ruthless efficiency alongside Jokić. He earned this A- in a different way against the NBA’s most well-polished team. For perhaps the first time this season, Gordon was asked to shine defensively as he did at the start of his Nuggets’ tenure. He took the Jayson Tatum assignment Sunday night. Tatum shot many free throws, but AG and his teammates did an otherwise excellent job containing the MVP candidate.
That assignment led to AG minutes with the bench. In an attempt to match Tatum’s minutes, AG ran with Zeke Nnaji, Vlatko Čančar, Christian Braun, and Bones Hyland. It was a remarkable success, and how Denver was able to put some distance between themselves and their foes from the northeast.
Michael Porter Jr. – B
Porter showed massive improvement from his last performance against the Celtics. One box we’re hoping to see him check is quality performances against the highest caliber of opponents, and he took steps in the right direction Sunday night. It helped that he knocked down his early jumpers, which tends to ignite his confidence. But from there, he kept himself in the fight. He was a steadier force than you might imagine. In some ways, this is more encouraging than a 30-point barrage. Porter wasn’t just feeling his shot. He played winning basketball.
KCP – C
If you had to pick one Nugget who struggled, it’s KCP. He drew the Jaylen Brown assignment in the first quarter, and Brown went full All-NBA wing on the Nuggets. But Kenny P has a little clutch in him. He knocked down two 3s in the second half that deflated comeback efforts.
Bruce Brown – A
Brown was born in Boston. That likely makes him the single coolest person to be born there. What’s even cooler is how well he played against the Celtics in a Nuggets uniform. Boston identified him as the non-shooter and helped off him all night. That’s fine with Brown, who knocked down 4 of 6 from deep on his way to 21 points as a starter.
Vlatko Čančar – C+
Speaking of ignoring shooters, when is the memo getting out on Vlatko? Ignore him at your own peril. Čaki knocked down 2 of 3 from deep against the Celtics. After the game, Bones Hyland called that shot an easy assist.
In addition to the shooting, Vlatko is good for about one highlight per game at this point. Here’s Sunday night’s sauce.
Christian Braun – B-
Braun led all Nuggets off the bench with 25:21 played. That’s despite shooting only once and scoring only two points. Of course, the offense is not how Braun earns his burn. It’s his defense and hustle plays, which shined in particular when he chased down Tatum in transition and forced a turnover. Michael Malone called it a winning play after the game.
Bones Hyland – B
Bones provided scoring in the non-Jokic minutes, putting up an efficient 17 points in 19 minutes off the bench. He’s still turning it over too much, but this was a good performance from Bones as he works his way out of the hole he dug in December. We talked plenty over the summer about the incoming learning experience for him. He’s been thrown into the deep end as an NBA point guard and asked to swim. After some panicked splashing, Bones looks like he’s kept his head above water. Denver needs him to build on this string of improved play. They want him doing laps by the postseason.
Zeke Nnaji – C
The box scores for Zeke are unflattering, but the minutes are going well. The lineup mentioned above featuring AG (and initially KCP) is their best defensive unit off the bench. Malone’s strategy was to generate stops in the non-Jokić minutes, and it was a good one. Zeke’s important to that dynamic.
Every Nugget from Michael Malone to Zeke Nnaji was ready for this one. Even KCP found a way to contribute despite a rough start. It’s starting to come together for Denver.