Denver Nuggets: 4 Thoughts, Week 4
A Sea of Blue
What a difference a week and a punctuation mark make! After looking like a hot, fresh manure in the first half of their home game against the Nets, the Nuggets finally heeded my call to get them some Juancho Hernangomez, overcame one of the most putrid shooting nights of Jamal Murray’s career, and turned a 12- point halftime deficit into an eight-point win.
Then, instead of reverting to the mean, they throttled the Grizzlies in Memphis for a tidy 2-0 week. I get to be a little more enthused about the Nuggets, which is much more fun! Like how
1. Jamal Murray continues his ascent. It may not seem like it, but the Blue Arrow is having his best season yet. Give him another .8 points, .2 rebounds, and .2 assists per game, and you’re looking at a 20-5-5 player. Bet you didn’t realize he was so well-rounded! He wielded the bowie knife when Denver skinned the Grizzlies on Sunday night, dropping 39-4-8, and hitting seven of twelve from downtown.
The knock on Murray continues to be his consistency, and that his biggest game of the still-young season came on the heels of a 4-5-4 night against Brooklyn where he shot 1-11 from the field is not lost on me. But also not lost on me is that despite an awful night of shooting, he was still +2 on the night, and has a positive net rating for the first time in his career. Perhaps the Jokic-Murray 1-2 punch can be the foundation of a champion in the Rockies.
2. Perhaps I should be making the Nuggets rotations too! I have been beating the drum for Mike Malone to use his bench better, and for Hernangomez in particular to get on the floor. Lo and behold, the player who had heretofore played just 19 minutes on the season gets 19 and 29 minutes in this week’s games, and the Nuggets win both. He just helps the team win, either in low-scoring efforts, like his 2-8-2 game against Brooklyn, or his more prolific 15-3-2 game against Memphis when he hit four of five threes.
I’m not sure whose minutes I want him to hoover up, because he plays a lot of power forward, and I’ve beat the drum for Jerami Grant too, but I’m glad Malone has clearly responded to my personal entreaties to ¡Free Juancho!
3. I’m going to backtrack on taking Paul Millsap’s minutes though. He’s your quintessential ‘so underrated he became overrated’ player. After years of underappreciation in Utah, he became a four-time All-Star in Atlanta, and signed a huge three-year, $90 million deal to bring him back to the mountains, a contract he has struggled to play up to at times, if you’re only looking at the counting stats. Even more than Hernangomez, though, he just contributes to wins. Four out of the last five years he’s been the third-best power forward in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus -- his teams are simply better when he’s on the floor.
And he’s totally remade his game. In his first five years, he attempted 43 threes -- total. By the end of next week, he’ll have attempted 43 threes this season alone. Of course he’s not gunning for gunning’s sake; while I will gladly acknowledge that he won’t keep hitting 51.5% of his threes all season, he’s hit 34.5% since he started shooting threes in volume in his first season in Atlanta. He’s a great defender. He stretches the floor. He’s everything you want from your modern ‘4’. Speaking of great defenders,
4. This defense is something else. Denver was a very good defensive team last year -- maybe even a great one -- and they’re better this year. After being 6th in the league last year in points allowed per game, they’re up to 4th. They’ve dropped from 1st to 5th in opponent three-point shooting percentage, but they’ve actually improved in the metric, holding foes to 32% accuracy, down from their league-leading 34% last year. In a league where 19 teams have put up 120 or more in the last week alone, the Nuggets have kept opponents under 100 points in seven of their nine wins. Defense wins championships.
This week is not messing around. The high-scoring Rockets, one slot ahead of them in the West standings, and East-leading Celtics come to town, followed by a feisty Phoenix squad that Denver just eked by in an OT win earlier in the season. It’s a defining early week. If you’re a championship contender, you rise to the challenge of the best teams playing on your floor. Will the Nuggets? We’ll find out next week!
*Stats accurate as of 11/19/20*