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Nikola Jokić painted a masterpiece, and Michael Porter Jr. put on a masterclass in Jamal Murray’s return.
Nikola Jokić – A+
Alperen Şengün reminds many of Nikola Jokić. He reminds me of DeAndre Ayton in one way. Jokić has vocalized respect for the two, and it seems genuine. But he has a funny way of showing it. Jokić’s latest effort looked like the perfect game he pitched against Ayton in his rookie season. Şengün was helpless as Jokić dropped 32-10-15 on 12/19 from the field with zero turnovers. It was a ruthless reminder, intentional or not. There are levels to this.
We all understand what Jokić is doing isn’t normal. But how do we keep that perspective watching him play? It looks normal. It looks easy. And he is getting better. It’s improbable that anyone will match LeBron James’ sustained peak or Michael Jordan’s unanimously recognized dominance. It seems just as unlikely to me, however, that anyone will make basketball look easier than Jokić does right now.
Great artists search for the limits of their capabilities. They push themselves forward, ever eager to grow. Then there are the generational talents—the bonafide geniuses who explore and expand the boundaries of the actual art form. Basketball won’t be the same when this guy is finished, and if this reads as overwrought or uncritical, please know I’m probably underselling it. I’m not a good enough writer to keep doing this. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again.
Michael Porter Jr. – A+
Jokić received a lot of help in Jamal Murray’s return. But it wasn’t the conventional two-man game that Denver rode to victory. Michael Porter Jr. got hot from the opening tip, draining his first four three-pointers and dropping 12 points in the first quarter. Denver kept him in their plans. Jokić wanted to find him. And Porter even returned the favor with the bizarro highlight of the season:
Porter finished with five assists, tying a career-high, and zero turnovers. If you’re sensing a theme here, it was an all-time ‘ball is popping’ night at Ball Arena. The Nuggets finished with 37 assists and three turnovers. The starters didn’t turn it over once.
It was a complete effort from Porter. He put on an elite shooting display with more confidence in his movement and shot selection. He defended well, rebounded well, passed well, and, most importantly, played joyfully again. The significant ankle injury and shooting woes were grating on him. But the spark is back. The Justin Holiday starts have been good for Porter. He’s a tough cover for power forwards, the lane is open, and he wants to drive more than ever.
Jamal Murray – C+
We expected to see a little rust on Murray. We know it will take a few games to get his legs back. We sure weren’t anticipating the turned ankle. He’s questionable now for the Suns game, but he would return to action against the Rockets. All things considered, he played and moved well. He missed many shots, but we saw flashes of the vintage two-man game, and Murray, while admittedly hobbled, didn’t look like a player worried about his hamstring. The ankle should be okay, and in the meantime, the Nuggets look like they’re approaching top form again.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C+
Pope had a great defensive outing against Jalen Green earlier in the season. He had less luck Wednesday night. Green dropped 19 in the third quarter alone, giving KCP and Zeke Nnaji fits. Pope was quiet but efficient on the other end of the floor, with 10 points on 4/6 shooting. He did not win the DPOG chain this time. So, no one won the DPOG chain this time.
Justin Holiday – A-
Holiday put together a perfect spot start. As mentioned numerous times, he allows Denver to space the floor properly when he starts at small forward. And he’s not just a theoretical shooter so far. He’s knocking down his open shots, keeping the ball moving, and staying engaged on defense. The beauty of signing players like Holiday is you can smash the glass and start them in case of emergency, yet they probably won’t complain if they are out of the rotation entirely the following week.
Reggie Jackson – B-
Jackson played a little bit of hero ball on a night when the ball was otherwise popping, but he earned it through his efforts in The Great Bailout of 2023. He was a helpful scorer with 14 points on 6/14 shooting and avoided turning the ball over. Jackson’s return to the backup point guard role didn’t immediately have the desired effect. The bench struggled again in the win, but the rotation got funky, especially with the front-court situation.
Zeke Nnaji – C-
The backup big minutes were a topic of inquiry following DeAndre Jordan’s dominant outing. The matchup didn’t necessarily call for Jordan, and the Nuggets just handed Nnaji a new contract. It seemed unlikely they’d shelve him. Malone found an interesting solution: he played them together in the first half. Nnaji got to play the four, but the minutes went horribly for Denver. Malone returned to Nnaji as a small ball five in the second half, and the unit looked a little better. But it was hardly a success. He was also on the floor for a brutal garbage time run and finished -17 in a ten-point win. To Nnaji’s credit, he continues to draw fouls with his hard work on the boards.
Christian Braun – B-
Braun is responsible for two of the three turnovers from the Nuggets. Still, he was arguably the best guy off the bench. He dropped 11 points on 4/7 shooting and knocked down another three. He’s starting to look a little more comfortable with that shot. There’s a way to go, but becoming a reliable shooter would be a significant development.
Julian Strawther – F
The low grade of the night goes to the rookie. Strawther missed all four shots he took and could not make a positive impact in other areas.