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Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets Dig Deep

Brendan Vogt Avatar
November 9, 2023

“Is it snowing tomorrow? I’m hoping one more pool day.”

Nikola Jokić

Nikola Jokić – A-

Jokić could not get that three-pointer to drop. And he would not let it go. On seemingly tired legs and without his pick-and-roll partner in Jamal Murray, Jokić hoisted six threes in the first half. Only the sixth attempt found the bottom of the net. It was a strange night from 15 and company. The starters played well, but they weren’t playing Nuggets basketball. Jokić recorded zero assists before halftime.

Jokić rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the second half. He carried funky lineups, including Denver’s dazed and confused youth, over the finish line. It wasn’t pretty as he tried to keep the bench afloat. He was gasping for air and gambling on defense. He played as if he knew there was substantial rest on the other side of victory. His beloved pool beckoned. Jokić dug deep and posted 20 points on 8/10 shooting, five rebounds, and five assists to close the game. Both misses were threes.

The Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors are the stewards of beautiful basketball in 2023, but Wednesday night’s game was a wrestling match on national TV. One guy was bigger and stronger than the rest.

Michael Porter Jr. – B+

Porter sprinted out of the gate Wednesday night. He led all scorers in the first quarter with 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting. He played with energy and buried two of his three 3s. He looked primed for a big night. But Porter can be a microwave scorer, doing the bulk of his damage in short spurts and occasionally fading into the background from there. He was at risk of doing so on National TV after going scoreless in the third quarter. Then, he re-inserted himself at the perfect time.

Denver trailed by five with 11:13 left in the fourth quarter, and Jokić looked like he was running out of gas. The Nuggets looked to inbound the ball with 1.1 seconds remaining on the shot clock, and Reggie Jackson found Porter in the corner. Porter hit a ridiculous fadeaway jumper, twisting in the air and beating the clock. Roughly 20 seconds later, MPJ swatted a Moses Moody jumper from behind, igniting a fast break. The next time down the floor on offense, Porter buried a 25-footer to re-take the lead. Denver doesn’t win without that stretch.

Aaron Gordon – B

With no Draymond Green on the floor, AG had a chance to make life difficult for the Warriors. He obliged with what wasn’t necessarily his crispest performance. He went full bull in a china shop. Efficiency be damned, Gordon was getting to the rim, and he was going to apply pressure on mismatches. A little more discernment and touch would’ve gone a long way, but his general approach to the game helped Denver power through. He came up with a big block in crunch time, too — a block that most certainly should have been called goaltending. I probably shouldn’t even call it a block. But credit that confusion, at least, to Gordon. He was there to make a play and force a big decision from the referee. His energy was his best asset in the victory.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A-

Do you have any guesses as to who won the defensive player of the game chain? If you guessed KCP, you don’t get a prize. We all assumed KCP. He wins it every time. He earned it again with a performance that would either make Matthew Dellavedova proud or give him flashbacks. Pope’s screen navigation and ball denial were exhausting to watch. Pope is serious about his goals—he wants to be in the DPOY conversation. He wants to be in the All-Defense conversation. He should be through nine games. Few, if any, players are working harder on that end.

Reggie Jackson -A

Big Government is always there for the bailout. Reggie ‘Big Government’ Jackson (yes, that is a real nickname) stepped up in Murray’s absence. Jackson is playing good basketball in Denver, showcasing more discernment on the ball and effort on defense than expected by the cynics—myself, very much included. In this particular instance, however, it wasn’t a disciplined or all-around impact that he hung his hat on. This one was about buckets. He dropped 20 points, attacking the rim and letting his jumper fly without fear. Jackson is Denver’s new king of “no, no—yes!” possessions.

Have you ever been in a bumper car with your sibling or friend, and you still need to communicate who will steer, who will work the pedals, and what the game plan is? Then suddenly, the round starts, you both panic and you start wreaking havoc in big, dangerous circles. That’s what it’s like when Reggie Jackson is in his bag. It worked this time. Jackson is getting it done.

Collin Gillespie – F

Gillespie struggled in the win. He’s decisive on the ball in the half-court. He knows how to play the position at a high level. But he’s just too small to allow Denver to maintain their identity with the second unit, which has a cascading effect on everyone involved. That group isn’t built to score. They need to defend like madmen, with switching being an essential component, rebound and run. Christian Braun and Peyton Watson are more dangerous in transition. They’re not built to save the day; unfortunately, Gillespie’s presence requires their heroics. At least so far.

Peyton Watson – F

Watson’s production is so loud. The silence was noticeable this time out. He made virtually no impact in ten minutes. We couldn’t see or feel his presence on the court. We’re learning that Denver’s second unit is a delicate ecosystem. This small change is throwing the whole system out of whack.

Christian Braun – D+

As mentioned above, Braun isn’t built to play hero on offense. He still tried his hand once or twice in the win. Watching CB play outside his role and take ill-advised shots is almost shocking. He’s typically a mistake-free player. He only shot three times, but one was a stepback 3. It’s like watching Jokić miss a floater. You start questioning the world around you. Braun’s not ready to break guys down off the dribble or change his reputation as a shooter. But we still know what he can do when the Nuggets play their preferred style.

Julian Strawther – F

Strawther also looked frazzled in his eight minutes on the floor. Thus far, we have mainly seen him make sound decisions and bury his jumpers. We finally saw him struggle. His one jumper was way off the mark, and the Nuggets sank with him on the floor. After the game, Michael Malone said he didn’t think his young guys were ready to play. And that’s the first time he’s seen that this season.

Justin Holiday – A-

Holiday only logged eight minutes, but his size and length went a long way toward patching up Denver’s style of play. He grabbed three rebounds and buried a huge three in the fourth quarter. It’s a modest A-, but he made the most of his minutes.

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