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“With our success comes the responsibility to go out there and play to a standard of excellence…”
Before the Denver Nuggets hung the banner, Michael Malone issued a new challenge to the defending champions. “With our success comes the responsibility to go out there and play to a standard of excellence,” Malone told a crowded media room. A ceremony was in place to honor the Denver Nuggets, but their leader was already focused on driving them forward. He called on them to honor themselves and the fans by meeting the standard they set in June. There’s no better way to describe how the Nuggets approached their first win of the new campaign.
Nikola Jokić – A+
Vlatko Cancar once explained why Jokić is far more competitive than people realize. Years ago, in the Nuggets locker room, he tried to paint a picture for me that everyone now sees. Jokić hates losing. He hates coming up short. And while he’ll never acknowledge the weight of a star v. star matchup, forever redirecting the conversation to one of team basketball, he does feel a responsibility to his teammates. It’s his job to outperform the best players in the world.
That’s something Jokić does routinely now, and he did it again on ring night with Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers in town. The matchup was perfect for the stage. The WCF sweep is the blatant backdrop, but there’s more to it when these teams clash. Davis is arguably the best defender in the league, and there was a time early in Jokić’s career when he had yet to figure Davis out. I believe that bothered Jokić, and I think we saw a rare glimpse of personal basketball from 15 on opening night.
He’d never state it explicitly, but Jokić looked determined to dominate every second he shared the floor with Davis. He even looked off open shooters to score. He was merciless. Jokić posted an easy triple-double as the starters showed again why they’re on a different level.
Jamal Murray – A+
Murray was dialed in on opening night. He’s reached new heights as a cerebral player, and that was on display again as he and Jokić dissected the Lakers. He’s prioritizing his playmaking abilities on-ball and staying shot-ready off-ball. He’s unflinching in his scoring opportunities and generous in how he manipulates defensive attention. He even took command of the new-look second unit Tuesday night. That unit is a work in progress, but it’s one with hope — especially if Murray can draw attention and fouls like he did from the Lakers. He and Jokić played great games from start to finish, and they were damn near flawless in the moments that mattered most. The best two-man game in the league picked up right where they left off.
KCP – A+
KCP is now a two-time NBA Champion and certified Denver Nuggets legend. Once a critical contributor to the Los Angeles Lakers, he’s a true thorn in their side these days. He dropped 20 points on 8 of 12 shooting Tuesday night. That’s found money from a player acquired to upgrade the perimeter defense. While we’re on the topic, Pope also took home the first DPOG chain of the season. He’s a rare player in the modern NBA — a vet who still makes his living with his motor. Few players work harder across 82 games.
Aaron Gordon – A+
Speaking of motors, AG put his fingerprints all over the win. He offered a delightful mixture of bully bull, point-forward ball, and high-intensity defense. Gordon’s long been an overlooked playmaker, and he improves with time spent around Jokić. While he’s honed his game into a mainly responsible one, we still see flashes of ingenuity with the ball in his hands. He’s simply cutting out the possessions wasted from hunting his shot. Gordon is getting better by getting smarter, just as he promised.
Michael Porter Jr. – B+
After returning from a sprained ankle and having missed the preseason, Porter looked rusty. He struggled from deep, shooting just 2 of 9 from the floor despite making his first attempt of the game. But Porter knows what to do in that situation. He rebounded, defended, and ultimately closed the game for Malone and the Nuggets. He finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and zero turnovers. After the game, Malone expressed his pride in Porter’s performance:
“We don’t sign specialists around here. Michael is a complete basketball player.”
Reggie Jackson – B–
The Denver Nuggets are arguably the most organized group in the NBA. And then there’s Reggie Jackson. Reggie is an agent of chaos. The chaos worked in Denver’s favor on ring night. He hit enough of the tough shots, and while the Lakers hunted him on defense, he was at least competing on that end. Still, his minutes on the floor with Murray will likely be a roller coaster this season.
Christian Braun – B-
Braun returned to the lineup and his promised place in the rotation. He’s brimming with confidence these days, as anyone would be if they stacked up titles like he has. That confidence was on display as he blocked LeBron James and flexed a little for the crowd. The box score only sometimes reflects his utility, but he’s essential to the second unit’s identity: defend, rebound, and run like there’s no tomorrow. Braun was born for that.
Peyton Watson – C
Opening night went well for the youngest player on the roster. After receiving his ring, he took the floor as part of the rotation. That’s a big step for a young player, and while his box score is relatively barren, he flashed his defensive potential with an A+ block. It’s just one play, but it was the exclamation point on a great defensive possession for the second unit. It’s a perfect example of what he can provide.
Zeke Nnaji – C
Fresh off his new extension, it’d be a stretch to say Nnaji played well. But it’d be erroneous to claim he didn’t look the part. Nnaji’s switchability is a crucial component in the second unit’s blueprint. They’ve got to defend and muck it up. They’re not going to cruise out there. Nnaji can help them do that.