Michael Porter Jr. – A
The story of round one so far is one of maturation. The Nuggets look older, wiser, and better prepared than ever for a deep postseason run. At the heart of that is the maturation of Michael Porter Jr. A once awkward fit in the organization has become the poster boy for their thriving culture. He’s embraced the expectations, his teammates have embraced him, and now the Wolves are on the wrong end of a brilliant narrative.
Porter’s blossomed into a bonafide third option on a genuine contender. He’s making an impact in all the areas expected of him. He’s defending well, inhaling rebounds, and breaking the dam offensively. Much like Klay Thompson, perhaps Porter’s most frequent and apt comparison, his buckets take all the air out of the building. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić were hard enough to stop. With a third star fully integrated, the Wolves’ actual opponent in this series is futility. How long will they rage against the inevitable? That’s all they can do while Porter’s playing at this level.
Nikola Jokić – A
Jokić shot zero free throws despite playing 37 minutes and taking nine shots in the paint. Referee talk is exhausting, but there’s a line, and we’re past it. That’s obscene.
Our theme of maturation rears its head again here. There’s a time in Jokić’s career when his composure would have devolved. His focus would have shifted away from the Wolves and to the whistle. That didn’t happen in game three. The experience set in for the back-to-back MVP, and he dropped a 20-point triple-double on 9/13 from the field. The Wolves have conceded a once-key element of their game plan. Rudy Gobert is back on Jokić, which leaves Karl-Anthony Towns as the help defender. He’s not particularly helpful in the role.
While Jokić hasn’t needed to dominate long stretches of this series, he’s shown the ability to do it on command. Gobert can’t guard Jokić one-on-one; both big men know it. Yet the Wolves are reluctant to send help. After all, the rest of Denver’s starters look dangerous too. This is the beauty Jokić’s impact — the Wolves are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Jamal Murray – B
Murray re-entered the atmosphere after his otherworldly performance in game two. It was a bumpy ride. He could have read the floor better for the first five minutes. Murray settled down after some shot-making in the second which steadied his hand on the wheel. He finished the night with nine assists and earned another DPOG chain from Michael Malone. He’s defended well for most of the series, and that’s significant. Murray’s defense suffered the most in return from injury. To find another gear in the playoffs is encouraging.
Aaron Gordon – B+
Malone called Aaron Gordon the unsung hero of the series after the game. Gordon’s struggled to stay on the floor, but he’s been quite good whenever he’s out there. Outside of the fouls, he’s done his job defensively. KAT’s essentially a non-factor, which Gordon and Jeff Green can hang their hats on.
Gordon’s been solid offensively as well. He colored outside the lines in March but slid easily back into his contained role against the Wolves. Gordon’s 3/6 from deep in the series — you can be pleased with both numbers there — and 10/11 from the free throw line.
Kentavious Caldwell Pope – B-
Pope played some failing basketball to close the first half. With a chance to blow the doors off game three, he slowed in transition and coasted for a layup that Anthony Edwards sniffed out a mile away. The block triggered a rough stretch of basketball for KCP. He stabilized, however, and when the dust settled, his efficient night from the field stood tall as his most significant contribution. All is well when the shots fall, and the team wins.
Bruce Brown – A-
Bruce Brown is tearing any hope away from Minnesota. The Wolves have tried their best to keep pace with the starters, but Denver’s bench is dusting them, a welcome surprise. And Brown is at the center of it all. He’s a madman in this series — attacking the rim with a palpable ferocity and talking his shit to anyone who will listen. He does not fear anyone on that team.
Jeff Green – B-
Green’s playing heavy minutes in this series with a challenging assignment when on the floor. This has been taxing, but he’s holding his own. He, too, has done an excellent job keeping Towns in check. The big knock on Green earlier in the season was his effort. It’s an inapplicable criticism at the moment. Everyone’s locked in.
Christian Braun – B+
Braun scored six of his nine points in the fourth quarter with a flurry of cuts and finishes at the rim. He’s fearless, attacking Rudy Robert at the rim and winning the showdown. Braun looked right at home as Denver kicked it into high gear in the final quarter. No stranger to high intensity or pressure, the national champion put his stamp on Denver’s third straight win to open the season. Even their rookie looks mature. This team is battle-ready.