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The Denver Nuggets Are in Control of Their Own Destiny

Brendan Vogt Avatar
May 2, 2023

“How will the Nuggets defend the Suns?”

Nikola Jokić – A+

Nikola Jokić offered a gentle reminder to any who needed it Monday night. He reminded the world why he’s still technically the back-to-back MVP, and the Denver Nuggets are the number-one seed in the Western Conference. This team can win any game, in virtually any style, with 15 on the floor — lest we forget.

After playing the perfect Robin to Jamal Murray’s super-heroic performance in Game One, Jokić took back the torch and led a dry offense to water in Game Two. Murray turned in one of the worst shooting performances of his career, and Michael Porter Jr’s head was never in the game on that end of the floor. The lessons learned in Jokić’s MVP seasons proved handy as he tapped into his inner beast. Jokić got 30 shots up on his way to 39 points. He dominated while Denver’s much-maligned defense carried the day. Jokić was involved in that, too, with two steals and a block to show for it.

His final stat line is ludicrous: 39-16-5-2-1 on 17-30 from the field. It’s the kind of stat line only superstars produce in the playoffs. It’s the kind of line some teams need from their superstars to have a prayer in the playoffs. For Jokić and these Nuggets, it’s a failsafe. They smash that glass in case of emergency.

Jokić respects Deandre Ayton, his counterpart in the series Denver leads 2-0. He’s said as much, anyway. Watching him put the poor guy in a torture chamber for four quarters sent a different message. Let’s leave the talk of Ayton slowing Jokić in the past. It’s a take from the purgatory years. It’s disrespectfully untrue.

How will the Nuggets guard the Suns? That was always the wrong question. How will the Suns guard the best player in the world? Two games in, we still don’t have an answer.

Aaron Gordon – A+

Game Two was Aaron Gordon’s best game as a Denver Nugget. Had Kevin Durant turned in an excellent performance, the Nuggets could be looking at a 1-1 series heading back to Phoenix. Denver won a dogfight Monday night. And AG was the meanest one on the floor.

It takes a village to slow an all-time scorer, but let’s not take any credit away from a phenomenal defensive effort by Mr. Nugget. He was physical. He was relentless. He gave Durant almost nothing easy.

Gordon took home the coveted DPOG chain, and with good reason. He’s been sensational in these playoffs. He’s looking elite in his role as Denver sits just ten wins away from their goal. It’s an under-appreciated story outside of our city.

Gordon is a unique player. Few have possessed the tools he does athletically, but his game also has a cerebral element. That aspect of his development went under-nurtured in Orlando, where he was miscast. A player in danger of going down in history as a dunk contest guy teamed up with one of the most brilliant players of all-time. The results are extraordinary. Gordon is becoming his best self and laying the blueprint for anyone wanting to play in Denver. Just listen to Jokić.

Jamal Murray – D

No one in the local media contingent requested to hear from Jamal Murray after the win. He shot 3 of 15 from the field and hurt Denver more than helped throughout his time on the floor. And yet, there was Murray at the podium alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. There to take accountability for his mistakes and shed light on what went well as Denver took control of the series.

That praise offered, there were plenty of mistakes. Murray missed open shots, took ill-advised shots, missed obvious passing windows, and looked exhausted on the floor. How, then, was it not a failing performance? The Nuggets executed in winning time, and that included 27. He found his touch in the pick and roll just in time as Denver separated where they had so many times before.

The struggles were, in part, avoidable. But also by design. Suns Head Coach Monty Williams spoke pregame about a desire to pick Murray up higher on the floor and try to push the pick-and-roll further from the free-throw line. The Suns went out and executed that adjustment. They also ran Murray through the gauntlet on the other end of the floor. He spent a lot of time on the move and fighting through screens. Phoenix was determined not to let Murray beat them. So Jokić did instead.

While Murray hopes to avoid a repeat performance, his struggles reveal what this team has learned about itself across the regular season — a regular season they took seriously. They can win in myriad ways. His transcendent performance was vital in the opener. They took Game Two in an entirely different fashion. Now, Murray has a chance to bounce back inside the lion’s den.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A

Pope was one of the heroes in the win. He shot 4 of 4 from three-point range, returning to his automatic status in the catch-and-shoot category. Denver only hit seven threes total. He did struggle to contain Devin Booker in the first quarter, and that’s putting it gently. Still, his play was essential to a massive result for the Nuggets.

Pope finished with five rebounds, including a monster offensive board and layup, as Denver carved into a third-quarter deficit. He knocked down open looks, won the race to 50-50 balls, and sold an offensive foul. Kenny P was playing the hits.

A quick aside on that offensive rebound—he was boxing out Chris Paul, who grabbed at his groin and subsequently left the game early. He would not return.

Michael Porter Jr. – F

Ironically, Porter’s been at his best defensively in this series. He was good on that end again Monday night, but a bizarre performance on offense overshadowed it. Porter missed good shots, took bad shots, and grew stagnant off-ball. His body language devolved into something less than encouraging. Sensing Porter’s struggles and identifying Denver’s need for another ball handler, Malone closed with Bruce Brown. It was the right call. Porter finished -12 in a game Denver won by ten. That’s not entirely his fault. Murray played so poorly that Brown needed to be out there. And Porter never got a chance to redeem himself as things swung back in Denver’s favor. Still, Malone’s decision paid off.

Bruce Brown – B+

Brown’s initial minutes were chaotic. He missed some open looks, narrowly avoided several turnovers, and struggled to defend without fouling. At his best, though, he was fantastic again defensively. Denver’s bench dominated their minutes. As mentioned above, Brown played a crucial role in the winning minutes alongside the starters.

Christian Braun – B

Braun played some excellent defense on Kevin Durant in his time on the floor. We’re cooking with gas if he stops challenging Durant at the rim on the other end. Jokes aside, the rookie isn’t just playable. He’s been helpful as the only rookie left in anyone’s rotation.

Jeff Green – C+

Green pulled down four rebounds again and blocked two shots. He also threw down another breathtaking dunk. The 36-year-old might be the weak link in the rotation right now, night to night, but the rotation also works. He deserves some credit.


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