The Denver Nuggets were on a back-to-back on Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, traveling from New Orleans after a hard-fought win the previous night.

As a result, the Nuggets decided to rest Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Already without Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets rotation was thin entering Wednesday’s game, and the Bucks took advantage winning 107-99. Perhaps the Nuggets made the game a bit closer than it should have been with a valiant defensive effort. Ultimately though, Denver couldn’t muster up enough offense without their stars.

Aaron Gordon was the lone starter on the floor for Denver, and he put in work on both ends. Gordon notched 37 minutes, 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists, adding two blocks while protecting the rim against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. He struggled to score efficiently for awhile with 24 total shot attempts, but hitting a couple of threes and finishing some plays in transition helped even out that efficiency. It’s hard to play Giannis even, but Gordon was close.

Outside of Gordon, no other Nugget exceeded 15 points. The shooting and creation left a lot to be desired from the majority of Denver’s group as few players wanted to challenge Lopez and Giannis at the rim. Still, the Nuggets made a game out of it with defense, forcing turnovers and running hard against a Bucks team that probably expected Denver to roll over.

Overall, a strong showing from a bereaved Nuggets team on the road and a good indication of Denver’s desire to try and compete on every single night.

Here are my takeaways from the Nuggets matchup with the Bucks on Wednesday night:

Giannis freight trains to the free throw line

As mentioned earlier, it’s hard to stop Giannis. He’s an athletic phenom with the strength of an ox, the agility of a pass rusher in football, and the mentality of a hammer. He’s going to get to where he wants to go, and he’s going to wear down the opposition in the process.

For the most part, the Nuggets did a great job of limiting him in the first half. They played disciplined defense, forced turnovers, and contested every shot at the rim really well. In the second half though, Giannis just kept coming, and the Nuggets being on the second night of a back-to-back began to show. The Greak Freak went to the free throw line 22 times in this game as the Nuggets’ wall of defenders began to show some cracks, and that’s just what Giannis does.

Did the whistle become more favorable for the Bucks in the second half? Sure. Was that the reason the Nuggets lost? No. Giannis just refused to lose, finishing with 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists, a +10 in his 31 minutes.

Shooting dries up without the starters

The most visceral indicator of Denver’s stars being absent was the heavy dose of mid-range shots for both Bruce Brown and Aaron Gordon through the first three quarters of this game. Left to create everything without the aid of Jokić or Murray, Brown got to his floater and Gordon went to post fadeaways. Neither got to the rim that frequently, and neither scoring option really worked for awhile. The Nuggets were fortunate their defense kept the Bucks at bay during that stretch.

The other indicator of Denver’s lack of starters: outside shooting. The Nuggets got hot at the end, hitting 11 three-pointers at a 32.4% clip. For the majority of the game though, the Nuggets couldn’t really space the floor, allowing Lopez and Giannis to pack the paint and grab defensive rebounds as well.

Bones Hyland returned for this game and was the only guy hitting shots in the first half for awhile, scoring 11 points on five shot attempts. Unfortunately, his shooting dried up in the second half as he finished with 15 points on 14 shooting attempts, going 1-of-5 from three. The Nuggets need him to be their primary floor spacer in many of their units, but he’s struggling with his outside shot at the moment.

Road back-to-backs are terrible

The Nuggets were without Nikola Jokić (hamstring tightness), Jamal Murray (knee injury management), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (wrist sprain), and Michael Porter Jr. (personal reasons) against the Bucks. Given the heavy minute load and role the three injured guys have played so far, it’s unsurprising that they got the night off from a difficult back-to-back. It’s unfortunate that the NBA put the Nuggets in this position as a Giannis vs Jokić matchup would have been fun, but they aren’t going to put their players in danger of injury if they can help it.

Giving Christian Braun an opportunity to start was a good idea though. He competed hard, hitting two three-pointers as well as this athletic dunk in transition over both Giannis and Lopez.

Zeke Nnaji also got another 22 minutes as a starter. His outside shot is something he must continue to iron out ahead of the playoffs, but if he can hit those shots with regularity, he’s going to be an important rotation option.

The Nuggets stars should hopefully be well rested for Saturday’s tilt with the Philadelphia 76ers, and it would be a surprise if Jokić doesn’t suit up for that matchup against Joel Embiid.

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