Millsap returns to the starting lineup as Nuggets escape with narrow win in Memphis

Mar 2, 2018; Memphis, TN, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) goes to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell Martin (1) and Memphis Grizzlies forward Myke Henry (4) during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets took on the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night following what was perhaps the most disappointing loss of the year to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday. Paul Millsap made his return to the starting lineup and the Grizzlies were without Tyreke Evans — an ominous sign for Memphis who was 0-11 without Evans headed into the game. That trend continued as Denver picked up the 108-102 victory.

With Paul Millsap back in the starting lineup, the Nuggets looked energized on offense and engaged on defense. They were able to establish the pace that they had hoped to — fast. But they never really appeared to play under control on either end.

While the Nuggets shot the lights out in the first, they also turned it over six times and created easy opportunities for a Memphis team that otherwise struggles to score points.

The defense looked active and communicative, creating five turnovers of their own and deflecting a handful of passes, but they failed to keep Memphis off the offensive glass. Memphis converted on all three opportunities to create second chance points in the quarter — a theme that would remain present throughout this game. All told, Denver held a 35-29 lead as the game headed into the second quarter.

The second half featured a strong stint from the second unit. Led by Devin Harris, who has struggled since coming over to Denver, and Will Barton — who returned to the bench after serving as the ultimate bridge between Michael Malone’s bench and his starters in Millsap’s absence — Denver’s bench blitzed Memphis with an 8-0 run and pushed the lead to as high as 14.

But for the second straight quarter, Denver’s well intentioned energy was laced with chaos and took on a frenetic form. They failed to value the basketball and turned it over far too many times as Memphis chipped away at the lead.

The Grizzlies would cut the lead back down to single digits with a strong run of their own before Michael Malone stopped the bleeding by calling a full timeout and subbing his starters back in. Paul Millsap went on a tear, scoring seven points in the final minutes of the quarter; highlighted by a scoop lay up through contact with his hindered left hand.

The Nuggets would push the lead to 16 behind Millsap, but yet again they failed to close out the quarter strong — a trend that’s plagued Denver on the road all season long. Denver continued to turn the ball over and they couldn’t keep Memphis off the offensive glass as the easy, and second chance points allowed the Grizzlies to push the lead back down to single digits again. Despite shooting 60 percent from the field, Denver led just 63-54 at the half.

The third quarter featured more heroics from Millsap, who turned in a spectacular defensive quarter. His activity on that end prevented the Grizzlies from making any dent in the lead despite more sloppy play from the Nuggets. Denver had opportunities to blow the game open, as they had been provided all game long, but again they left the door open for Memphis with turnovers and poor defensive rebounding.

The Nuggets looked uninterested in making any impact through their rebounding — which was perhaps symptomatic of the lethargic performance from their best player in that regard, Nikola Jokic.

For the second straight game since Millsap’s return, Jokic saw his role in the offense reduced significantly. The energy and assertiveness that was present during his three game triple-double streak was absent entirely. Jokic was passive on offense and a liability defensively without his usual activity on the glass. The Nuggets couldn’t pull away, but they still led 81-70 heading into the final quarter.

After failing to blow their lead open for three quarters but keeping Memphis at an arms length for the majority of the game, something finally gave in this seesaw affair. Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but Denver failed to make any adjustments to the way they were valuing the basketball and Memphis continued to eat them alive on the offensive glass. They simply never adjusted.

Denver had been hot from the floor all night, and that had bailed them out for three quarters despite all their mistakes, but they went ice cold in the fourth. The lead shrank to three as Denver only scored six points over the course of seven minutes.

The Nuggets never really cleaned it up, but Memphis went cold, hitting on just one of their final 11 shots as Denver barely escaped with a 108-102 victory, narrowly avoiding a devastating and potentially season-threatening loss.

Following the win, the Nuggets improve to 34-28 on the year and 10-19 on the road. This was Denver’s third consecutive road victory. The Nuggets will travel to Cleveland tomorrow for a back-to-back with LeBron James and the new look Cavaliers. That game tips off at 5:30pm MT.