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How Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the undermanned Nuggets toppled a "basketball genius"

Christian Clark Avatar
December 29, 2018

Nine nuggets for nine Nikola Jokic dimes in a 102-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday.

1. When Michael Malone was plotting how his team would finish close games this summer, he probably didn’t envision going with a Monte Morris-Jamal Murray-Juancho Hernangomez-Trey Lyles-Mason Plumlee quintet. That’s who was on the floor as the Nuggets hung on against the Spurs on Friday. Morris, whose bad games are most backup point guards’ good games, hit a pair of clutch free throws with 7.2 seconds left, and Denver prevented San Antonio from getting a game-tying 3 off to avenge an ugly loss in San Antonio earlier in the week.

“To have the record we have, to be as young as we are with all the injuries we’ve had and with the schedule we’ve played — it’s really tremendous,” Malone said. “We’re winning games somehow, some way.”

Malone didn’t have a lot to work with when Nikola Jokic fouled out with 48.3 seconds to go. Malik Beasley, who scored 21 before leaving the game in the fourth with a left ankle injury, was also unavailable. Murray was on the floor, but he was banged up after twisting his right ankle earlier in the quarter. Denver (22-11) still got it done.

2. How about Morris’ rise? In less than a year, he’s gone from G Leaguer to a closer on one of the NBA’s best teams. Malone entrusted him with the ball on a crucial possession in the final seconds Friday. Naturally, Morris, one of the smartest decision makers in all of basketball this year, delivered.

Morris didn’t have his best scoring night (seven points on 1-of-7 shooting), but he impacted the game elsewhere with five rebounds, seven assists and one turnover. The Nuggets outscored the Spurs by seven points in his 21 minutes on the floor. Morris has been as solid as a diamond-encrusted slab of granite all season.

3. Murray needed a bounce-back game after going 4 for 19 Wednesday in San Antonio. He got one. Murray scored a game-high 31 of 13-of-27 shooting. He went 4 of 7 from behind the 3-point line, a step in the right direction for a player whose average on long-range attempts has dipped below 30 percent.

4. Murray got going, and so did Jokic. The Spurs doubled and tripled Jokic in the post Wednesday. Two nights later, they mostly guarded him one on one. Jokic made them pay.

The Nuggets worked on improving their spacing following the loss in San Antonio. Too often, Malone said, they were bunched together in that game. He said they did a better job on not occupying the same real estate on the floor Friday, which helped on the few occasions San Antonio did decide to send an extra defender.

“The floor was spaced so much better,” Malone said. “We had one great example we showed at halftime. The ball went in, they did double and it was a swing, swing, swing corner 3. That was beautiful basketball. There was no hesitation.”

5. Jokic is getting good at passing out of his shooting motion. Two of his nine assists came that way.

This one to Murray wasn’t quite as tricky as the one he lobbed to Millsap earlier this season, but it was still a sweet pass.

6. This summer, Jokic spent time with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp in Sombor, Serbia. There’s mutual admiration between Denver’s playmaking center and San Antonio’s legendary head coach. They yukked it up during breaks in action Friday, and after the game, the two found each other at center court and hugged.

“I said that I really appreciate and admire playing against him,” Jokic said. “I think he’s a basketball genius. If you see the game how he’s thinking, what plays he’s giving, how he’s thinking about every possession … Even the last play. Forbes was wide open in the corner. Mason made a play. He’s just a basketball genius.”

7. Malik Beasley jumped so high, he smacked his head on the backboard. As the first quarter was winding down, Beasley got out on the break and nearly threw Morris’ lob pass through the hardwood.

Beasley is good for a highlight dunk almost every game. His breakout third season continued Friday with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Beasley had a seven-point flurry to start the fourth quarter, and he might have closed the game if not for a left ankle injury.

“I’m a mutant, so I’ll be all right,” Beasley said.

8. Trey Lyles is going through it. The Nuggets could use his scoring punch off the bench with three starters sidelined, but Lyles can’t get going. He went 1 for 10 from the field and committed three turnovers in 17 minutes. He’s shooting 24.3 percent from the 3-point line after an 0-for-3 outing. Woof.

9. Brandon Goodwin got a little burn against the Spurs, and he could be in for even more playing time if Murray or Beasley can’t go or are limited Saturday in Phoenix. Goodwin, who Denver signed to a two-way contract two weeks ago, seems to have supplanted Nick Young in the rotation. Young has racked up two DNP-CDs in a row.

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