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With the Nuggets clinging to a seven-point lead with three minutes remaining in regulation, Brandon Ingram got to one of his sweet spots.
He was around 15-feet away from the hoop, positioned on the right wing in the midrange, the same zone where he hurt the Nuggets at times during the Nuggets and Pelicans’ first two meetings of the season. Ingram scored 25 points in the Pelicans’ 122-107 win over the Nuggets back on Oct. 31 and then poured in 31 points in New Orleans’ win in Denver on Christmas Day.
As he turned and faced the basket, Jerami Grant pressed up into Ingram. A flurry of jab-steps from Ingram couldn’t get Grant off balance so the Pelicans’ forward rose and fired, but Grant’s 7-foot-3 wingspan made the shot difficult. As was the case on four of Ingram’s five field goal attempts with Grant as his primary defender in the fourth quarter of the Nuggets’ 113-106 win over the Pelicans, his attempt clanged off the iron.
The Nuggets got their 31st win of the season and first over the Pelicans behind a dominant 27-point, 12-rebound, 7-assist performance from Nikola Jokic but also on the back of one of Grant’s better defensive outings of the season.
Denver grabbed 24 offensive rebounds too — the Nuggets’ most since Dec. 2 2016. Jokic corralled seven offensive boards. Grant, who also chipped in 14 points, grabbed six offensive rebounds and finished with a season-high nine, many of which came following Michael Malone’s third-quarter ejection for arguing with official Eric Lewis shortly after Grant was assessed a technical foul.
Torrey Craig also had a strong night, finishing with a season-high 15 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the field and 3 of 6 from three-point range to go with 10 rebounds. Michael Porter Jr. was a big presence on the glass as well, tallying 10 rebounds to go with 15 points on 5 of 15 shooting.
Ingram, who shot a combined 18 of 30 against the Nuggets in the previous two meetings this season, was limited by mostly Craig and Grant to 3 of 11 shooting and went just 1 of 6 from the field in the fourth quarter. With Grant as his primary defender, Ingram shot just 1 of 8 from the field and 1 of 5 in the fourth quarter.
The sterling defensive performance from Grant capped a string of impressive showings from the Nuggets’ summer import in January. Earlier this month Grant used his length and quickness to bother Luka Doncic and help Denver secure one of its better road wins of the season in Dallas. A week later Grant’s defensive versatility was featured against the Clippers when he held Kawhi Leonard to 2 of 9 shooting as the reigning Finals MVP’s primary defender.
It’s the type of defensive production that Denver hoped it was getting when it traded a 2020 first-round pick to Oklahoma City for the rangy forward. Grant’s length, at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan gives him something that no one else on the Nuggets’ roster packs and it’s why Grant was able to defend Ingram Friday at a level that none of his teammates have achieved this year.
“We don’t have a matchup for Brandon Ingram,” Michael Malone said following Ingram’s 31-point outing on Christmas Day defeat.
It appears that Denver does.
Last season in the playoffs, the Nuggets fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round partly due to the Nuggets inability to contain Rodney Hood, another lanky score-first wing in the Ingram mold (Hood is listed at 6-8, Ingram is 6-7.) But Grant has proven as of late that he’s up to the task of defending those types of players which the Nuggets will see plenty of in a postseason environment.
Grant is also evolving as a rebounder over the last month, a piece of his two-way game that’s going to be required from him going forward, especially if the Nuggets plan to move the 25-year-old into the starting lineup on a full-time basis in the future. Grant is averaging just 3.4 rebounds this season but with Paul Millsap out of the lineup for much of January, the Nuggets are relying on Grant, who has stepped into Denver’s starting power forward slot next to Jokic, to be a presence on the glass.
Since Jan. 8 when Millsap missed his first of what’s now been nine-straight games with a left knee contusion/sprain, Grant has recorded three of his four highest rebound games on the season. Of course Grant has played more minutes as of late with Millsap sidelined but his increased activity has been noticeable. On the offensive glass is where his impact is being felt the most. His six offensive rebounds against the Pelicans were a season-high, but Grant also grabbed four Wednesday in Houston and four more in Dallas earlier this month.
Grant will help the Nuggets navigate the regular season and spell Millsap, who’s defensive presence will also be needed in the playoffs. And while Grant still has to get better as a help-side defender, which ironically enough is Millsap’s forte, his on-ball skills are a weapon that the Nuggets will have at their disposal for the first time this postseason.
The Nuggets probably won’t see Ingram in the playoffs unless the Pelicans can get Zion Williamson, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds but only played 21 minutes, up to speed in time to capture one of the Western Conference’s final two seeds. But Denver could match up against Leonard, Doncic, James Harden, LeBron James and others come April.
The Nuggets will need this level of defensive play from Grant to advance past them.