Ball Arena is a fortress
Nikola Jokić – A
Jokić opened the game 2-6 from the field, permeating existential confusion among the Nuggets faithful. Wouldn’t you know it, he finished the game an efficient 12-20 from the floor, including 2-3 from deep. He missed just one of his nine shots in the second half.
His second half was spectacular. He dropped 19 points on 8-9 from the field, with six boards, six assists, and three combined steals and blocks. He paved the way as Denver ultimately cruised to an easy win despite a shaky start. Offensively, Jokić is proving himself one of the all-time playoff risers. He passed Wilt Chamberlain with his 10th career playoff triple-double. He’s a beacon of consistency. He’s greatness personified.
Slowly but surely, the world is coming around to Jokić as one of the best offensive players to pick up a basketball. But that framing is selling him short. Jokić is off to a tremendous start defensively in this series as well. He’s far from the weak link in a battle featuring outrageous firepower. He’s been disciplined, active, and disruptive.
Everyone who watches Jokić play basketball regularly knows they’re witness to greatness. Nuggets fans realize they might witness history if he keeps it up. When you’re talking about the best performers of the postseason, start with Jokić. He leads all second-round players in points, rebounds, and assists.
Jamal Murray – B+
Murray struggled in the first quarter. He shot 1 of 4 from the field, failed to register an assist, and turned it over twice. He also killed the momentum his teammates built in the quarter’s final minute. But Murray responded. If you’re picturing buckets, think again. Murray pulled back on the throttle and raised his head to read the floor. He finished with six assists and would not turn the ball over again.
Now you can picture those buckets. Murray flipped a switch in the second half and poured in 17 points on 6 of 9 from the field. He bullied Landry Shamet and barked in his face after scoring. That drew a technical—fair price in exchange for Murray’s competitive fire. He pressed the right buttons at the right times in quarters 2-4. Denver needed it.
Michael Porter Jr. – A
The box score won’t show it now that the dust settled. But make no mistake. Michael Porter Jr. played one of the best games of his NBA career Tuesday night. Porter was brilliant in the first quarter, scoring 14 points on 5 of 6 shooting and 4 of 5 from deep. He was Denver’s best offense as the half-court operation otherwise sputtered. They needed every ounce of what he gave them to open the game. Predictably, he didn’t see a ton of touches from there on out, but he stayed dialed in. Porter turned in one of the best defensive performances of his career, if not his very best.
Porter also finished with eight rebounds, the second-highest mark of all Nuggets. While his shot has come and gone, his floor has been higher than given credit for in this series. He’s rebounding, defending, and doing the little things. On Tuesday night, he did the big stuff too. Porter finished 5 of 8 from three-point range in game 5. His shooting is, admittedly, streaky of late. Still, consider the numbers if it feels like MPJ is struggling from deep. Porter is now shooting 42% from 3 on 6.6 attempts per game in the playoffs. The Suns know it too. They don’t want to leave him open. They’re likely kicking themselves for allowing the hot start.
The Nuggets would be wise to feed Mike in the first quarter of game 6. Make Devin Booker defend. Scare Phoenix into a trap Denver wants to set—the more space for Jokić, the better. Establish Porter early.
KCP – B+
Speaking of Devin Booker, he shot just 8 of 19 from the floor. If that appears a minor miracle to you, fair enough. It wasn’t an accident, though. More went into that than the law of averages or divine intervention. KCP set the tone early, picking Booker up immediately after the Suns secured the opening tip. Pope forced a loose ball and drew an unpenalized elbow from Booker. The bow drew blood, but Pope was the one sending the message. He spent much of the night hounding Booker up the court. Denver flipped the Suns’ plan of attack on its head. Booker had to work harder on both ends of the floor, and Denver finally held him in check.
Pope’s signature hustle reared its head in other ways as well. He got in on the rebounding effort, pulling down 7 in 27 minutes played. He also drew an offensive foul on a screen, the typical indicator that he’s wreaking havoc in Ball Arena. Pope took home the coveted DPOG chain for his excellent night’s work.
Aaron Gordon – B-
Gordon’s offense isn’t making a dent in this series. But that’s okay. He’s been Denver’s best defender in the playoffs thus far and contributed to a 41.7% shooting performance from Kevin Durant in Game 5. The Nuggets did it by committee—Brown, Braun, and Jeff Green also got their hands dirty. But Gordon was responsible for a handful. He also got in on the rebounding effort with three on each end.
Bruce Brown – A
We spent a lot of time on our show and in these grades discussing the role-player production in this series. Mainly, that role players are playing better at home on both sides of the fence. Michael Malone’s been thinking about it too.
“Who will be our Lonnie Walker, our Landry Shamet, in this game?” Malone recounted the day’s question to the media. It was Brown, of course. He’s been an absolute menace in Denver.
Brown scored 25 points on 7 of 11 from the field and 9 of 10 from the free throw line. Denver generated stops, and Brown attacked the rim like a madman—his forte. Brown leads all Nuggets in points, rebounds, assists, and steals off the bench in the playoffs.
Christian Braun – B-
Braun played tough defense on Durant. Durant cashed in on a few of them all the same. He’s got a significant size advantage. But CB made him work for it. Durant’s tiring as this series goes on. AG, Brown, and CB are doing their part to make it grueling. Braun put the cherry on the cake in the fourth quarter with a fastbreak slam that brought the crowd to its feet.
Jeff Green – C
After much discussion about a potential change to the rotation, Jeff Green was on the floor in the end. He grabbed two rebounds—we’ll take it—and dished out two assists to go with four points. The bench lost their minutes this time but did much better stretching out the Suns’ runs without Jokić on the floor. They did their job in Denver.