The Denver Nuggets defeated the Milwaukee Bucks tonight in an intense game, a 113-107 clutch game that involved high level basketball throughout the entire night.

Tonight was the first game on the sidelines for the newest Milwaukee Bucks head coach, Doc Rivers. Milwaukee was impressive and came ready to play tonight, jumping out to an early lead and showcasing some elite talent on both ends of the floor. The Bucks rolled out to an early lead, but the Nuggets clawed back with excellent effort and poise, especially from a bench unit led by Jamal Murray.

Murray led the way with 35 points tonight, scoring the vast majority of his points in the paint and mid-range area. Murray was aggressive all evening, going at former teammate Malik Beasley and fellow star guard Damian Lillard with systematic aggression. Murray getting into the paint was clearly part of the game plan, and he executed it well against a defense built to protect the rim. It was an impressive showing from the Nuggets guard all the way into clutch time when Murray helped create efficient offense on every single possession in clutch situations.

 But it wasn’t necessarily Denver’s offense that propelled them to a win tonight. The Nuggets held the Bucks to just 107 points and a 107.0 offensive rating, the seventh lowest mark of the season for Milwaukee. Despite having both Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, two dynamic offensive talents, the Nuggets locked in and played great defense throughout the evening.

“I think it’s more just about who’s got your back,” shared Jamal Murray postgame. “When Dame’s coming off [the screen] it’s about trusting who’s going to be there.”

The biggest theme of Murray’s postgame presser was about trust, believing in what the team is trying to do, executing schemes, and trusting teammates to do the right thing defensively at any given moment.

“If somebody makes a mistake or improvises and doubles, just being on a string. We don’t have to draw it up,” Murray continued. “I think just having better reaction, better timing. I think we did a good job of just reading each other on the defensive end.”

These are the kind of quotes that stand out to me as a championship team continuing to learn and grow, a team that knows exactly what their goal is and is discovering new ways to satisfy that goal throughout the year. The Nuggets have always taken the long view over the last two years, and everything builds toward playoff success. Seeing that in real time and hearing about that process is very, very fascinating.

Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were the primary defensive assignments on Giannis and Dame respectively, and both did a fantastic job. The efficiency numbers for the two Bucks stars don’t tell the full story of how hard they had to work for their points tonight. Denver’s two defensive lynchpins were central figures in that effort, and while others certainly helped out, it was the two starters to shoulder the initial burden, and they shouldered it well.

 Nikola Jokic, despite shooting just 10-of-25 from the field, played a great game and did what was needed to earn a victory. He hustled defensively, grabbing 15 defensive rebounds, three steals, two blocks, and made several stops around the rim as the primary paint protector. Adding to those defensive numbers were the standard 25 points and 12 assists, completing the triple-double. The Nuggets won Jokic’s 40 minutes by nine points, and that was enough given the surprising contributions from the Nuggets bench unit.

Reggie Jackson made plays in the pick and roll and created some important baskets. Christian Braun grabbed six rebounds, including two offensive rebounds, and played solid defense all over the place. DeAndre Jordan even made some plays at the rim on both ends and dunked over Giannis to start the fourth quarter,

But the biggest difference maker off the bench was Peyton Watson once again. Watson’s numbers don’t pop off the screen, but he was instrumental in defending both Giannis and Dame tonight, spending time on both guys, contesting every shot, and working extremely hard. He was a cerebral defender too, finding ways to create advantages for himself throughout the evening and playing a chess game with Giannis as much as a game of rugby. Watson was overpowered a couple of times by Giannis, and he allowed a mid-range jumper to Lillard, but the vast majority of his defensive possessions were incredible, and it showed.

“These are just tremendous opportunities and growth opportunities for him,” Michael Malone said postgame about Watson. “He is just a Swiss army knife. We’re going to put him on Giannis. We’re going to put him on Dame Lillard. Every night he’s going to guard somebody different because we feel he can impact that matchup defensively at a positive level…really proud of Peyton’s continued development.”

Last night was also special for the Nuggets for another reason: it was Michael Malone’s 400th win as head coach of the Denver Nuggets. It’s a nice moment and nice reminder for the team to appreciate the little things, because too often in this business, you have to move on to the next game extremely quickly. For this moment in time though, it’s okay to enjoy it.

Malone also spent plenty of time thanking ownership in Stan Kroenke and Josh Kroenke for believing and sticking with him.

“That belief is just so…it empowers you to do your job, knowing that you the confidence from your ownership group.”

The Nuggets are thankful for Malone to be part of their organization, and he’s rapidly becoming the greatest coach in Nuggets franchise history. Doug Moe currently leads the organization with 432 regular season wins. Michael Malone broke the playoff record for wins last year as part of Denver’s championship run, and he has a great chance of becoming Denver’s all-time winningest head coach early next year. Denver has 34 games left this regular season so it won’t happen this year, but it’s right around the corner.

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