Nikola Jokić – A-
When Jokić struggles from the field, we worry about his wrist. I wish I could be more specific. It’s a lingering issue described as soreness, inflammation, and a sprain at different times on injury reports. Jokić is fuzzy on the details. When asked on record, he’s been unable to pinpoint precisely what’s wrong or to what extent the various issues are connected. Either that or unwilling to share. But here’s what we do know: whatever the issue is, it hasn’t prevented him from putting together one of the most incredible stretches in the sport’s history. He’s fine, even if the wrist isn’t. Sometimes, guys miss shots—including the big fella. And he missed shots against the Clippers Tuesday night.
One of the many layers of Jokić’s dominance is his ability to dominate even on his off-nights. Let’s keep it real: it was an off-night from the field. And yet, when the dust from his fourth-quarter rampage settled, Jokić stood tall with 32 points, 16 rebounds, and 9 assists in the win. Ty Lue and the new-look Clippers opted to close small. They assigned Terance Mann to Nikola Jokić in a desperate attempt to spread the floor on offense and change the look defensively. We’ve seen it before — smaller guys are allowed to scrap, hack, and swarm in a way bigs are not. It’s a worthwhile gamble without Murray on the floor, and it’s not like the Clippers had much size to try anyway.
Here’s where Jokić has evolved over the years. He’s ready to devour your small lineups. He’s willing to stomp and slam and move earth on his way to the rim. And my favorite part: Jokić is getting greedy. Like the legends of NBA history, he’s refusing to lose. It was an off-night from the field, with no minutes from Murray, and a poor night from Michael Porter. None of that mattered come winning time.
Aaron Gordon – A
Jokić did get some help. He got a lot of help from Mr. Nugget, in particular. Gordon is an incredibly malleable player due to his skill set and approach. His best asset is his willingness to liquefy his talent and seep into the cracks of Denver’s starting lineup. He’ll run through undersized defenses like a bull in a china shop. He’ll tap into his inner Jokić and make plays for others out of thin air. He’ll commit his night to containing the best wings in the league. He’ll do any of it with no questions and did a little of everything on a night when Denver needed it all.
The Clippers have talent but have yet to become a complicated team to guard. AG matches up well with Kawhi Leonard primarily due to Leonard’s affinity for operating from “his spots.” He’s not necessarily running Gordon through a gauntlet of screens or beating him with speed. He wants to use his footwork, size, and strength. That’s where AG shines as a defender. Offensively, he made seven of his eight field goals at the rim. The eighth was a euro-step into a half-court heave to beat the third-quarter buzzer. Cash. And wouldn’t you know it? The Nuggets won by three points.
Michael Porter Jr. – C-
Porter holds his own against the Clippers for many of the reasons listed in the AG section. He’s a legitimately good iso defender. This grade is mostly about his shooting and body language. Porter is struggling to hit his threes, turning shots down in a once unimaginable fashion and occasionally drifting away from the action. Historically, this is when Porter bounces back. That’s been one of the best parts of watching his entire career. He usually finds a way. The Nuggets need him right now.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C
Scrub this one from the DPOY highlight reel. Paul George presents a tough matchup for Pope, and he got it going in Denver. George started hot and stayed hot for most of the night. One of Pope’s best attributes, though, is his veteran reliability. He always finds a way to make one or two big plays. He recorded three assists in the second half, including perhaps the most important one of the night.
Reggie Jackson – A-
Reggie is the latest example of what Nikola Jokić Can Do For You. He’s playing some of the best basketball of his career and filling in admirably for 27. He scored some crucial buckets with a Group Play win on the line, and the best part was how he did it. Typically a microwave scorer, Jackson was reading the floor like a starting-level point guard. He was canny in the pick-and-roll, carefully using Jokić’s intense gravity to his advantage. One of the best parts of Nuggets fandom is watching players find their best selves alongside a basketball genius. But it only works for those who are open to it. Jackson deserves a ton of credit for his competitiveness and production. That wasn’t a revenge game for him. One doesn’t typically long for revenge when the split proves to be a blessing.
Christian Braun – B-
Braun got back to some of what made him so successful last season. He only grabbed one rebound, but the second unit generated some stops, which meant Braun could run. That got him going. Look at how NBA.com defines his field goals:
A man on the move. A man looking to help himself.
Jalen Pickett – C+
Pickett looked comfortable alongside Jokić and noticeably uncomfortable without him. That’s to be expected for either backup point guard option right now. One important difference, though, is the defensive possessions included far less panic with Pickett on the floor. He’s still relatively small and a target, but not to the extent that Gillespie is. Malone shortened the rotation, too, providing Jackson with more help alongside the second unit. That made the whole situation more palatable.
Peyton Watson – C-
Watson logged the least time of any rotation player for Denver. He scored 4 points on 2/2 shooting but failed to log other box score stats. Watson can start where Porter typically does when things aren’t going his way — rebounding. It’s a great way to earn Malone’s confidence.
Zeke Nnaji – C
This was a step in the right direction for Nnaji. He fit in more neatly with shortened rotation, and while he didn’t produce much, Denver survived his minutes. The bench got some stops and ran, and he played a role in that.