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Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets Finally Lose in Denver

Brendan Vogt Avatar
December 9, 2023

Nikola Jokić – F

Good news! Nikola Jokić did not shoot 9/32 from the field again. Bad news: Nikola Jokić did shoot 9/26 from the field. We grade the best player in the world on a unique scale, and he might’ve played even worse against the Houston Rockets than he did against the Clippers. There was no triple-double this time. And there was a late, uncharacteristic turnover that ended a near-miraculous run.

In the last grades, I expressed pity for whoever matched up with Jokić following the rare display of poor shooting in Los Angeles. But I don’t think Alperen Şengün minded. He played unbothered and productive basketball for three quarters before the Nuggets almost stole the win.

Writing so critically about a player who’s delivered with such consistency feels strange. Only a fool would doubt a return to form. But when grading each game as they come, there’s no skirting around the fact that he played poorly again. Hop on Twitter this morning; you’ll likely see a handful of theories on how this could happen. The wrist discomfort is a popular explanation, but we should consider its lingering presence throughout one of the best individual stretches in NBA history. It hasn’t prevented him from becoming a back-to-back MVP and Finals MVP. There’s also the poor referring, but again, this is a circumstance he’s played through before.

One can’t blame Nuggets fans seeking an explanation. Wouldn’t you if the sun stopped rising? Still, let’s start with the least complicated possibility. Of course, Jokić is not the sun outside of any literary sense. He is a human being and a basketball player who isn’t playing up to his standard. It might be that simple.

Jamal Murray – C-

Murray showed some flashes of greatness for short spurts. We caught brief reminders of how electric his game can be. But it could have been a more consistent effort. Ultimately, he shot poorly, got scored on a ton, and locked in too hard on the two-man game. Porter and KCP should have been more involved in the half-court offense in critical moments. But again, that’s hardly a sin. Nuggets basketball starts with Murray and Jokić, and if they’re playing poorly, the whole operation is at risk of falling apart anyway. They went back to what they knew. And they didn’t deliver.

Murray was ejected from the dying moments of this game. He grew fed up with contact on his drives, and extended dialogue with the crew preceded his head start to the locker room.

Michael Porter Jr. – A-

Porter didn’t get a shot in the first quarter. By the time he fired off a three in the second, he’d gone about 17 minutes of combined game time without getting one up. Naturally, he buried it. It was the start of a good run for the MPJ-led bench. He gave them a little juice, and the group played with energy. He and Peyton Watson put their fingerprints all over a small run to clean up the starter’s mess. Porter was defending at a high level in the first half. He scored nine points on 4/6 shooting in the second quarter, too. His mid-range game is turning into a legitimate weapon.

Houston targets Porter. They’ve done it in just about every matchup this season, and there have been a lot of matchups. Denver conceded the switch easily, and Fred VanVleet got the better of Porter for a couple of big buckets. But ultimately, Porter was the best Nugget on the floor. He led the team in minutes and finished +11 in an 8-point loss. He scored 20 points on 8/12 shooting. He’s now back up to 49% from the field and 40% from three. This is free information for those in the silver-lining business.

Aaron Gordon – F

No one enjoys it when Mr. Nugget struggles. But the game is the game, and the gig is the gig. AG is playing poorly right now, significantly impacting the offense. Teams are simply not guarding him on the perimeter. It’s as bad as ever, and that’s hard to ignore with the Timberwolves finding their stride. Even still, the Nuggets won a title with this dynamic present. He’s got to figure out how to play winning basketball while not hitting shots. He did miss some games, but it’s been a minute since his physicality jumped off the screen.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C+

Pope scored well. He probably would have been more involved in a healthier half-court offense. But he didn’t make much of an impact outside of his 5/6 shooting. He recorded zero combined rebounds and assists, and the Nuggets got crushed while he was on the floor.

Reggie Jackson – C+

Jackson struggled from the field yet gave the Nuggets good minutes off the bench. He finished with six assists and zero turnovers. Those six assists were a team-high. Not all assists are created equally, of course. And several of those were the result of legitimately good playmaking.

Peyton Watson – A

Watson played a role in both pushes from the Nuggets. He scored 13 points this time, cutting well and drawing free throws. He went 5/5 from the stripe, grabbed four rebounds, and flew around the court. He missed a couple of looks around the rim. He’s prone to missing the easy ones, but there’s no doubt he brought winning energy on a night when several Nuggets did not. He was finished +4 in 25 minutes off the bench.

Christian Braun – D

Braun couldn’t get it going offensively. He did finish with two steals (one was actually a jump ball in the first quarter), but he didn’t rebound well, and his energy didn’t jump off the screen. These are the games you expect him to bring energy. Games when key Nuggets aren’t. He can swing games like that in Denver, but he didn’t against the Rockets.

DeAndre Jordan – C

The backup big minutes were not the story Friday night. Ironically, this topic is hardly relevant after Denver lost at home for the first time all season.

Julian Strawther / Justin Holiday – F

Both players got a brief crack at providing utility off the bench. The Nuggets got crunched with either one on the floor. They combined for 2 points with 0 rebounds or assists.

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