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Nikola Jokić – B+
Do you believe in Christmas miracles? Nikola Jokić didn’t get a good whistle on his home floor against the Warriors. He got a spectacular one. Jokić shot a career-high 18 free throws in the win — ten of them in the third quarter — and knocked them all down. He is far from the poster boy for doing his work at the free throw line. He rarely draws shooting fouls. He does, however, draw a lot of fouls on the floor. Significant time spent in the bonus converted some typical fouls into free throws. And let’s not kid ourselves; he got the benefit of the doubt on a few of those calls as well.
Steve Kerr took the opportunity to bash the state of officiating after the game. He ripped into the idea of players baiting fouls from referees and challenged the idea of what fans want to see. He’s right about the dynamic in general, even if those of us in Denver nearly choked on the irony. This is more than a rarity for Nikola Jokić. It’s unprecedented.
For those who refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially on Christmas, I salute you. But I also hate watching free throws. I can’t imagine watching a star player produce like that with any regularity. It’s much more fun to watch Denver play their beautiful game.
Jamal Murray – A
Life is better in Denver when Jamal Murray is healthy. The Nuggets are better when Jamal Murray is healthy. And like the Phoenix Suns, the Golden State Warriors would be better off if he wasn’t. The two-man game is back, and Denver’s competence is steadily improving in tight games.
Murray is decisive right now when he senses space or a mismatch. He’s aggressive, even forcing the issue at times. It’s all been for the best, the occasional miscalculation notwithstanding. He’s got the glint in his eye again, and the starters look like themselves once more. It’s a Murray Christmas in Colorado.
Michael Porter Jr. – A
Porter’s best comparison might be Klay Thompson. They’re rare breeds — players that don’t need dribbles to get hot. They thwart game plans that are already oriented around slowing all-time greats. Neither one is an anchor, but both, at their best, turn great teams into nearly unstoppable ones. I’m not one for poetry in its traditional form. Yet I’m a sucker for poetic occurrences in sports. MPJ never looked more like a 6’10” version of Klay than this past Christmas Day.
Porter dominated the first quarter. He was the best player on the floor, getting to 10 points early, grabbing rebounds, blocking a shot, and setting KCP up with the sauciest pass of his career. He kept the Nuggets afloat before Murray and Jokić found another gear.
Porter doesn’t turn those hot starts into massive scoring nights. We know that by now. His scoring slowed again this time, but his impact never waned. He finished with four blocks, including two crucial denials of Klay Thompson on the hunt for 3 points. He split DPOG honors with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A+
First Team All-Defense is back on the menu. KCP turned in a dominant two-way effort in the Christmas win. He stuck to the typically elusive Steph Curry like a dog with separation anxiety. Curry finished 7/21 from the field. Meanwhile, Pope shot 4/9 from deep and posted 5 assists with 0 turnovers. He outplayed all three of Curry, Thompson, and Chris Paul.
Michael Malone spoke briefly about Pope’s All-Defensive play during the ESPN broadcast. Broadcaster JJ Redick carried the torch home after the interview, citing Pope’s NBA-best opponent field goal percentage. The campaign picked up some serious momentum during the win on national television.
Aaron Gordon – B+
Gordon posted an efficient double-double alongside Porter and Jokić. The three of them looked huge against Golden State. Of course, they’re an objectively big trio. It’s an often overlooked element of Denver’s success. Most of the contenders have size. The owners of the last 3 MVPs are centers. Being big is back in a big way.
The Nuggets are nearly impossible to match up against, considering the biggest starter is their maestro, and their 6’10” small forward is perimeter-oriented. Then, you add AG’s verticality and strength. The Wolves are probably the only team built to contain them. And that’s easier said than done.
Peyton Watson – D+
Watson’s string of good-to-great performances reached its end. The entire bench put the result in jeopardy despite the starters’ dominance.
Reggie Jackson – F
Jackson crashed down to earth after floating high above the criticism to start the season. What he contributed without Murray is more meaningful than his struggles since his return. This isn’t an abrupt switch-up on a player having a great season. Still, as Reggie goes, so does the bench offensively. Reggie’s not going right now, and the bench is stuck in the mud.
Christian Braun – F
Braun finished -22 in a six-point win. That’s never a coincidence. He’s hitting dead ends so far as he explores his game offensively. Still, despite the relative struggles, he’s knocking down his threes. He’s up to 41.5% percent on the season. That could prove to be more significant than any areas of non-development.
Julian Strawther – F
Julian knocked down a floater. That’s the end of this summary.
Zeke Nnaji – F
Nnaji only logged five minutes in the win. He was the only Nugget who failed to score.