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Welcome to Denver. You will not enjoy your stay.
Nikola Jokić – A-
Jokić woke up from a nap, so to speak, for his Balkan visitor, Luka Dončić, and the rest of his traveling party from Dallas. He rose to greet his guests but found his teammates had already formed a welcoming party. They ushered the Mavericks in and hurriedly prepared their finest L. All Jokić had to do was sit at the head of the table.
He never really had to leave third gear. The starters picked the Mavericks apart by keeping the ball moving, and the bench was up to the task again. Jokić scored just enough in the second quarter—10 points on 5-5 shooting in only 6:48—to open up a big lead and demand more attention from the defense. The attention that he happily exploited.
Michael Porter Jr. – A–
Porter was excellent as the second option alongside the back-to-back MVP. He turned in one of his better games defensively and scored 22 points on 5-10 shooting from deep. He wasn’t Luka’s primary defender, but he still found himself guarding the sensational Slovenian on a small handful of possessions. He fared well — utilizing his length and quickly dispelling any notion that Dallas could seek victory by hunting him out.
His best play of the night came on the defensive end. Late in the fourth quarter, A.J. Lawson pushed the ball in transition with a chance to cut the lead to 10. Porter smothered the layup and last remaining ember of hope with a merciless block. His athleticism is trending in the right direction, and it popped again on both sides of the ball. He found success driving to the rim, a skillset that looked greatly diminished in the initial recovery from the third surgery.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A-
Kentavious is ready for Cabo. But he had one last job to do first — a message to deliver to the league. KCP shot 3 of 6 from deep, where he’s been lethal from the season opener. He didn’t lose focus on providing an all-around performance either. While he’s not big enough to defend Luka, he still wrought havoc on other assignments. He’s a difference-maker on that end. Pope was also the stagger-man — a non-term that I’m falling in love with. He and the bench delivered again.
Bruce Brown – C+
Without Aaron Gordon in the lineup, Brown took the Dončić assignment. That was futile from the get-go, much like Dallas’ attempt at a road win. Brown is too small, but Denver was shorthanded and in no rush to reveal their best hand for a regular season game. Let’s give him some credit, though — his point guard play hasn’t been stellar in Murray’s absence, and he was much better against the Mavs. He also corralled some timely rebounds.
Vlatko Čančar – B
Vlatko couldn’t get his three-point shot to drop, but that’s about all he struggled with Wednesday night. He played well yet again in a spot start, putting up 12 points, grabbing 3 rebounds, recording 2 assists, and avoiding any turnovers. You can’t complain about that supplemental contribution.
One final note on Čaki: you shouldn’t jump with this guy, but hardly anyone knows it. He’s going to put someone on a poster soon enough.
Christian Braun – B
Braun is beginning to explore his playmaking game at the NBA level. The results were fun Wednesday night. He found Porter in the corner with a laser after an impressive offensive rebound. He curled around a DHO from Thomas Bryant and found him at the rim with a lovely lob. He took a handoff and screen from Jokić before finding him with a precise pocket pass. The confidence continues to grow.
Jeff Green – A
If Green noticed any criticism directed his way, consider this an appropriate response. He dropped 24 points off the bench, leading all scorers for Denver and becoming the first Nugget other than Bones Hyland to drop 20 off the bench. He was genuinely spectacular as the first option for the second unit. He’s still got young ones making business decisions out there.
Thomas Bryant – B
Like everyone else on the bench, Bryant had the best seat in the house to Uncle Green’s masterclass. There was more to do than stand and watch, however. He scored eight points in the paint and fought hard for his five rebounds. It’s safe to attribute most of the bench’s success to Green turning back the clock. But it’s also fair to get excited about what Bryant provides the second unit. They did their jobs again.
Ish Smith – B
This is what a third guard is for. Stand by in case of an emergency and keep the ball moving when your name is called.