As if the stakes couldn’t be higher, the Denver Nuggets took on the Memphis Grizzlies on the road with something to prove at FedExForum. With both teams persistently gnawing at the number one seed in the West, somebody needed to make a serious statement while the schedule pushes forward following the All-Star break.
Back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic got going early with his rebounding ability and Jamal Murray stepped up with his snipes from deep. Desmond Bane showed why he can be a difference for the Grizzlies after sitting in the previous pivotal contest at Ball Arena back on December 20th. Big Honey’s scratches and bruises can attest to the fact that this game was severely physical. It’s a shame this game was not on national television.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continued to work on his inside game with a beauty off the glass but Ja Morant would respond. The competitive energy was undeniable and the Big Tipper, Nikola Jokic must have been feeling the road blues, because he was a monster on the boards. Morant’s quick points were a problem for the Nuggets as they tried to come up with an answer for his creative drives.
Vlatko Cancar was all-or-nothing tonight as a step-in for injured Aaron Gordon with spectacular decisions mixed in among questionable choices with the basketball. The Grizz continually called out the Nuggets, allowing Jeff Green to fire from deep only to capitalize in transition with a mix of layups from Ja Morant and his associates. Green would make them pay from deep with under a minute left, but Memphis would take a forceful 28-20 first quarter lead,
The Denver bench was done no favors as they were handed a double-digit deficit with the inability to score or stop anybody. Tyus Jones went to work against the Nuggets’ second unit while Reggie Jackson gets comfortable with his new squad and the Grizzlies built a comfortable 36-22 lead with 9:57 left in the second.
It looked like the Grizzlies wanted it more, as Denver refused to show urgency or compassion as the lead mounted. Desmond Bane was a huge difference in his return and Michael Malone was forced to blow another time out as the lead ballooned to 20 at the 8:21 mark. Jeff Green continued to build his confidence with a dagger from deep and a tough drive to the basket that would draw a foul.
All valves sprung a leak in the second, with the Nuggets holding on for dear life as the Grizzlies dazzled from deep. Jokic continued to show his rebounding prowess and Jamal Murray flashed his arrows, but the turnovers started to mount and players like Santi Aldama and the aforementioned Jones took advantage. The Nuggets tentative style combined with the disappearance of Michael Porter Jr. led to a 66-40 Memphis lead at half.
The Nuggets’ biggest halftime deficit of the season would remain a tough hill to climb as Ja Morant would get to the line and really push Denver to make a play on difficult switches due to his fast pace and confident drives to the basket. The Grizz would push it to a 32-point lead with 9:43 left in the 3rd, with little hope left for recovery.
The Nuggets established a slow rhythm with Murray and Jokic only to be interrupted by consistent Memphis trips to the free-throw line. Michael Porter Jr. scored his first bucket of the night at 8:06 in the third, and continued his awakening with a three from deep. Both teams missed easy shots midway through the third quarter as the Grizzlies seemed to toy with the Nuggets, who were playing hard to no avail. Ja Morant’s converted and-one opportunity with 4:17 left had the Nuggets gasping and Dillon Brooks’ lights-out shooting would put the Nuggets to sleep.
Enter the bench. A rough night for the starters leads to some interesting minutes for the new faces as Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant continued to play hard but could not keep the Grizzlies down. A road loss with Murray struggling is not the worst thing, and you forget the month off that the Blue Arrow has had since returning to action. If the Nuggets can improve their bench and get Murray right once again, things should be fine in the Mile High City.
Up next is the LA Clippers tomorrow night at Ball Arena, where Denver is lights-out and just smashed them by a score of 122-91 on January 5th. On one of the worst shooting nights of the year the final score from FedExForum winds up at 112-94 and all eyes on the Nuggets as they try to bounce back on a back-to-back.