“Well, Nikola didn’t play.” – Michael Malone
Jamal Murray – C
Murray couldn’t get to the cup on Herb Jones and a hungry New Orleans Pelicans team. All 15 of his field goal attempts were jump shots, and only six fell. Of those six made field goals, four were from three-point range. He couldn’t breach the perimeter without his favorite pick-and-roll partner. Murray struggled defensively, too, first with CJ McCollum and then with Brandon Ingram late. Denver was willing to switch without Jokić, and Murray struggled with the mismatch. He logged just under 36 minutes in the grueling loss.
Michael Porter Jr. – F
Porter’s struggle without Jokić on the floor continued Thursday night. He found better looks this time but couldn’t buy a jumper. He shot 0/7 from deep despite some wide-open looks. He grew stubborn with it, too, attempting to shoot his way out of the slump. He took too long to adapt and attack the rim. At least Porter played some encouraging defense, but Denver needed scoring and rebounding. He came up virtually empty in a chance to shine.
Aaron Gordon – D
Aaron Gordon was guarding Ingram for much of the night. Ingram might not know that, though. I don’t think he ever saw AG. He dropped a 31-point triple-double, and it looked easy. Gordon is fresh off an encouraging second-half performance guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo if you’re looking for some optimism, but his defense has to be better in the future. It will be a genuine swing factor in virtually any given series.
KCP – C-
KCP struggled from the field again. He shot 0/4 from deep and 1/7 from the field. While Malone made much of Jokić’s absence, and with good reason, Denver generated some good looks. A large handful of Pope’s and Porter’s misses were the type of shots you hope for. The team’s best distance shooters couldn’t cash in. KCP is ice-cold right now.
Thomas Bryant – D
Bryant caught the spot start, but his time in the spotlight was brief. He logged the least time on the floor for any of Denver’s rotation players. He couldn’t defend without fouling.
Bruce Brown – B+
Brown scored 19 points with a determined approach. He attacked the rim without hesitation, finishing inside and drawing fouls. He went to the line for eight free throws. It’s an adventure with the ball in his hands, but he held it together and produced off the bench.
Christian Braun – B+
Braun nearly dragged Denver back into the game with tenacious defense and ferocious dunks in the third and fourth quarters. He brought the crowd to its feet and finally flashed the emotion associated with his play in college. He was begging for someone to challenge him. It wasn’t a perfect night — Braun, typically a good rebounder, finished with only one and shot 1 of 4 at the free-throw line. He couldn’t knock down his threes, either. Still, he stood out in a game without the MVP. “Christian is really good,” Bruce Brown emphasized after the game.
Jeff Green – C+
Green struggled from the field, but he played hard all night. He pulled down seven boards, a season-high, and stayed active on defense alongside a driven bench unit. They followed their blueprint — get stops, rebound, and run. Somehow, though, Green logged roughly 30 minutes on the floor. He was hustling, and the starters were struggling. Still, Malone pushed it as he’s wont to do.
Zeke Nnaji – C+
Zeke had some real lowlights in his 16:53 on the floor. He struggled to catch the ball, was utterly overwhelmed by their size, and air-balled a three. He got his feet underneath him eventually, staying active and rebounding well. Denver survived his minutes despite the loud mistakes.
It remains tragic that Zeke tweaked his jumper. It was once what he did at a higher level than anything else. It’s virtually no longer a part of his game.