Nuggets-Wizards Tuesday night was a competitive game for one half. Washington led Denver 57-55 after two quarters of play. Then, a flawless third — played almost entirely by the Nuggets’ starting five — secured Denver’s 49th win of the season.
It was as near-perfect of a quarter as we’ve seen from this Nuggets team all season. Denver shot 14-20 from the floor in the third and hit 7-of-10 3s. The Nuggets committed zero turnovers and forced the Wizards into five. Denver fouled only twice in 12 minutes. Nikola Jokic played the entire quarter. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon each played 11 minutes. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played the first eight minutes of the period. Bruce Brown finished out the period.
Denver opened the quarter with what we call the Murray special — an action designed to get the Nuggets’ point guard an open 3. That’s exactly what transpired. Murray had two triples in the quarter and finished the game with 17 points and 9 assists. Gordon connected on two third-quarter 3s too.
The Nuggets got easy transition buckets after forcing the Wizards into mistakes.
They looked to run off every Wizards’ miss and made sure to look the way of their best 3-point shooter whenever possible. Porter, who scored 21 points and shot 6-9 from 3-point range, is now shooting 42% from distance on seven 3-point attempts per game.
Only three players in the NBA are shooting at least 42% from 3 on more than seven attempts per game this season: Steph Curry, Buddy Hield and Porter. He’s in the conversation for the best shooter in the league.
In the half-court, Nikola Jokic was a beast. He had Daniel Gafford in his back pocket all night. You actually felt bad for the guy. It was a cool 31 points (12-16 shooting), 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals in 34 minutes of work for Jokic.
This Nuggets starting five is special. Dominant, all-powerful, potent — no adjective does them proper justice. Of the 91 five-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together this season, the Nuggets’ starting five stands a cut above the rest.
Denver’s Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Porter, Gordon, Jokic lineup has outscored its opponent by 189 points in 654 minutes this season. No one else can touch that, mostly t of how many minutes the Nuggets’ first five has logged. The Warriors’ starting lineup — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney — has the NBA’s second-best point differential at +145 points in 331 minutes. Next up? Atlanta’s starting five at +103 points in 666 minutes. The Nuggets’ starters have a 124.5 Offensive Rating, a 111.2 Defensive Rating and a 13.5 Net Rating this season.
But the thing about this Nuggets team is that Denver needs its starters to be this dominant. Because the Nuggets’ bench is that unreliable. If the Nuggets’ starters don’t run a tour de force in their minutes, Denver is likely headed for a close game. If the Nuggets’ starters are close to even in their minutes? It’s going to be hard for Denver to win that game.
It’s exactly what played out over the Nuggets’ recent five-game road trip. Denver’s starters controlled the game in the minutes that they played across three matchups: against the Pistons, Nets and Wizards. The Nuggets’ starters faltered versus the Raptors and Knicks. There are Denver’s three wins and two losses on this trip right there.
It feels like we may be in this boat for the remainder of the regular season too. The Nuggets have tried countless different bench combinations this season. Every option at backup center — DeAndre Jordan, Thomas Bryant, and now Zeke Nnaji — has been exhausted. Christian Braun is now firmly in the rotation for good. Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson each had their turns at backup point guard. Neither was the right fit. The alignment that Michael Malone has settled on — Murray or Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Braun, Jeff Green and Nnaji — didn’t look good again Wednesday.
Vlatko Cancar, despite a really strong regular season, remains glued to the bench since his wrist injury. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be a part of Denver’s rotation down the stretch either.
“We’ve just got to find a way to get Bruce, Jeff, Christian, Zeke Jamal, those guys the reps and help them out as best I can moving forward,” Malone said postgame last night.
The Nuggets will go to war in the playoffs with arguably the best starting five in the NBA. Maybe the solution to the bench struggles is simply to play their reserves less — like against the Wizards. Your bench minutes naturally shrink in the postseason, but maybe Denver needs to take it to an extreme. Gordon at the backup five. Maybe Porter with the bench at times.
That’s the reality that the Nuggets find themselves in with nine regular-season games remaining. Then comes a playoff run that could define this organization for years to come.