The Denver Nuggets went to Chicago on Thursday evening to face the Bulls, once again without Michael Porter Jr. and Christian Braun. It was more of the same as Tuesday’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns, with encouraging signs throughout the evening from both Denver’s starters and second unit.

Ultimately, the Nuggets walked away with a 133-124 loss in double overtime. Braxton Key made some heroic plays at the end, including the game-tying buzzer-beating alley-oop layup on an amazing pass from Hunter Tyson. Ultimately, it wasn’t meant to be with the Bulls pulling away at the end.

Nikola Jokić led the Nuggets at halftime with 17 points in 18 minutes. He shot 8-of-10 from the field and appeared very dialed in. His willingness to shoot so far this year has been in direct conflict with past preseason games, and after struggling with his shooting efficiency on Tuesday, Jokić looked better than ever tonight.

Here are some other takeaways from the Nuggets matchup with the Bulls:

The Nuggets have several interesting wing combinations

With Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Aaron Gordon almost always on the court in important situations for the Nuggets, the Nuggets almost always have their point guard, power forward, and center spots filled. In a league full of wings and versatility, the Nuggets have locked down the other three positions, allowing them to mix and match different combinations on the wing.

Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are Denver’s usual starters and do a great job. With Porter and Nuggets sixth man Christian Braun out though, the Nuggets have been able to try different combinations this preseason. KCP and Justin Holiday have started games so far and offer Denver two tradition 3&D options with lineup versatility. Both are veteran options as well,

In addition to those guys, Julian Strawther and Peyton Watson came off the bench and offered an interesting yin and yang. Both are 6’7″ or taller, and Strawther found ways to score and add value in groups with and without Jokić on the floor. Watson was far more erratic tonight, but his athleticism and do-it-all play style will allow him to be more aggressive in Jokić lineups. He mostly stays out of the way right now, but his defense is pretty useful when paired with the starting group.

The Nuggets have several options and will continue to explore those options throughout the preseason and regular season. When you have Jokić, Murray, and Gordon, it’s a luxury to experiment with different lineup combinations.

Rebounding could be a problem on the bench once again

The Nuggets struggled to match up with a bigger, more athletic Chicago Bulls second unit, headlined by Andre Drummond. The Bulls backup center grabbed an absurd 13 rebounds in 14 minutes, including multiple sequences with two or three rebounds on the same possession. Zeke Nnaji, in his 14 minutes, grabbed just two rebounds.

It’s not all on Nnaji to be the rebounder of the second unit, especially when he’s constantly switching onto the perimeter to guard in space. Rebounding is a team effort, especially when the team switches. Reggie Jackson, Julian Strawther, Peyton Watson, and Hunter Tyson only combined for nine rebounds in 80 minutes, including some extended run for Watson and Tyson in the fourth quarter. That quartet has to be better boxing out and fighting on the glass as well.

But without Vlatko Čančar healthy, the Nuggets are down a big body at the forward position, and that could exacerbate some rebounding issues.

Julian Strawther continues to shine

Though he struggled at times defensively and didn’t make as much of the all-around impact that he had in the first game, Strawther continues to shoot the ball extremely well. With 16 points on 5-of-9 from the field and 4-of-8 from three-point range, Strawther’s offering spacing that the Nuggets bench lineups desperately need, hitting shots off-the-dribble, off-the-catch, basically whenever the Nuggets need a big bucket.

Two plays in particular caught my attention: the defense overloaded on Jalen Pickett on the left side of the floor. Pickett recognized what was happening and swung the ball the Strawther on the opposite side, who caught and shot the ball with zero hesitation from 27 feet. Spacing the floor horizontally and vertically other actions will be one of Strawther’s added values to any unit.

Second, a vertical cut from Strawther and a pass from Nikola Jokić. A fantastic way to earn playing time is to read the floor and react to Jokić. Great start for the rookie.

What’s Next

The Nuggets will return to Denver, have a practice on Saturday, and play the Chicago Bulls again on Sunday, this time in Ball Arena. Perhaps Michael Porter Jr. and Christian Braun will be available for that matchup.

Final Rotations