The Denver Nuggets went on the road to face the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday evening, a battle between last season’s NBA champions and a severely injured opponent. Of course, the Grizzlies were at home, and for a long time, the FedEx Forum was known as the Grindhouse during the Zach Randolph-Tony Allen Grit N Grind days. It’s never easy to play in Memphis, and the Nuggets got all they could handle.

Ultimately, the Nuggets prevailed 108-104 on the road, but it wasn’t without a few challenges against a feisty Grizzlies rotation. The Nuggets committed 17 turnovers with Nikola Jokić giving up nine by himself, and the Grizzlies also grabbed 13 offensive rebounds. They hustled, led by Marcus Smart, Xavier Tillman, and Jaren Jackson Jr. in that regard, and nearly eked out a W against the defending champs.

Fortunately, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić had other ideas down the stretch.

Murray hit a key three-pointer late, as did Jokić, to give the Nuggets enough breathing room down the stretch. The duo each had 22 points and ran the two-man game late to generate the shots they needed like they always do. It wasn’t a masterclass by any stretch, but it was good enough to leave Memphis with a win.

Here are my takeaways from the Friday night matchup:

Emotional grind after ring night

Early on in this game, the energy peaked with some physical intensity. The refereeing crew made it clear they would let a lot of marginal contact go tonight, and both teams took it to the extreme early. The Nuggets made shots early and rose above it, but the Grizzlies showed the determination that a veteran team often shows to stay the course and make the Nuggets work for every inch.

After practice yesterday, I asked Michael Malone about bringing focus and intensity on the road.

There were concerns heading into this game, and the Nuggets had enough lulls in focus and attention to detail tonight to keep the Grizzlies in the game. It didn’t burn them like it has in the past, but it certainly could have.

It helps to have a veteran in place like Reggie Jackson steering the ship with the bench unit. Jackson had 16 points and six assists compared to zero turnovers in 22 minutes. The Nuggets survived those minutes offensively because of Jackson’s production and steady hand. The rest of Denver’s bench guys scored a bit but only had two assists between the four of them.

Nuggets find pockets of elite defense

Even though the Nuggets allowed 38 points in the second quarter, they allowed just 66 points the rest of the game. 18 points in the first quarter, 23 points in the third, and 25 points in the fourth. The Nuggets collected 12 steals and nine blocks, an abnormally high number of “stocks” for a Nuggets defense that is often more positional than playmaking. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a menace throughout the evening with five steals and a block, including several deflections in clutch time to force turnovers. Peyton Watson off the bench had an incredible sequence to end the first quarter with two blocks on Derrick Rose, finishing with four total stocks himself. Zeke Nnaji added three stocks and did just enough on Jaren Jackson Jr. defensively to hold down the fort.

The Nuggets aren’t known as a defensive team, but they often find times when they lock in and execute their schemes to perfection. It’s hard to do that for 48 minutes a night, but finding opportunities in a game to get stops and generate runs is of paramount importance throughout the season.

Jokić bothered by Grizzlies defensive pressure

There are very few teams that give Nikola Jokić trouble, and it’s possible that the Grizzlies are one of them. Xavier Tillman did a great job of walling up against Jokić and not giving up ground. That allowed both Marcus Smart and Jaren Jackson to rotate over and create havoc in passing and shooting lanes. That defensive trio combined for eight steals and five blocks against the Nuggets, leaving Jokić frustrated.

Part of the way to defend Jokić is to get away with fouling him, and the Grizzlies crossed that line more often than not. Jokić was clearly discombobulated though and made some curious decisions (and non-decisions) as a result. The Grizzlies might be one of the teams at the end of the road for the Nuggets in the playoffs, so it’s a matchup to monitor throughout the year.

Of course, Jokić is still capable of these plays, so I’m not really worried.

Next Up

The Nuggets will travel to play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday to take on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren.

Final Rotations