The Denver Nuggets defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 115-103 on the road on Friday night, showing up without Nikola Jokić in the lineup and taking it to a team that several believe to be a championship contender.

Jamal Murray led the way with 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in 39 minutes, providing a steadying presence for the Nuggets without the two-time MVP. He played under control, putting the Nuggets in position to succeed on just about every possession in the fourth quarter. Michael Porter Jr. took advantage of some of those possessions himself, scoring 22 points, grabbing four rebounds, and dishing three assists. The two max players led the way, with several other Nuggets providing assistance along the way to generate what might be the best win of the season.

Without Jokić, it was always going to be a battle. To see the Nuggets step it up without Jokić against the Clippers is extremely encouraging. Joker got to rest a nagging wrist injury, and the Nuggets got a big time win without him on the road. That can seriously elevate a team’s confidence and belief in what they can do, and the Nuggets seem like a team that truly believes it can do big things this year.

Here are my takeaways from the Nuggets matchup with the Clippers in Los Angeles on Friday night:

An entire team effort

What stands out most from this one was the consistent effort from Denver’s entire nine-man rotation. Every player had at least five points and three rebounds, getting involved in the action and staying engaged. The Clippers and Kawhi Leonard, when they’re playing at a high level, require such a high level of engagement on both ends of the floor in response. In response, the Nuggets put together a 24-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio, committed just 11 personal fouls to keep the Clippers off the free throw line, and allowed just 10 offensive rebounds without Jokić.

Murray and Porter may have led the way scoring wise, but Aaron Gordon had 17 points on eight shot attempts. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 14 points on nine shot attempts. DeAndre Jordan also had eight points on four shots and gave the Nuggets exactly what they needed (more on Jordan later).

Off the bench, the Nuggets weren’t nearly as efficient, but they battled. Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown were scrapping out there, while Vlatko Čančar and Zeke Nnaji made plays to help Denver extend a lead while the majority of the starters got a breather at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Vlatko was the only player with a negative plus-minus tonight, but it didn’t matter that much.

Game like this, as mentioned above, can offer a sense of belief. Without Jokić, everybody on the team found a capable version of themselves to contribute to winning basketball. It was cool to watch,

MPJ and Jamal both find success off the dribble

Without Jokić handling the ball at the top of the key and in the post, the Nuggets turned to a more ball dominant style of offense with Jamal Murray. It wasn’t perfect, and there’s still some areas to improve, but to handle that much responsibility is a big deal, and Murray handled it well. Nicolas Batum pressured him full-court for the entire game, and on a night when Murray played 39 minutes including the final 15 in a row, it might have been easy to lose focus in the closing seconds. Murray handled things well though and looked like a franchise player out there directing traffic, driving around double teams, reading the defense, and setting up his teammates to succeed.

He also made some important shots at different moments, mostly in the first three quarters but still hit a big three-pointer in the final frame.

Porter responded to the pressure in a different way than he has so far in his career with scoring off of the dribble. There were possessions in the fourth quarter that saw Murray get double teamed, finding a pressure release to Porter and setting him up for an advantage situation. Porter went 1-on-1 against Marcus Morris twice in the fourth quarter and scored on both possessions, the first on a mid-range fallaway and the second on free throws. He also had drives throughout the game with impressive finishes at the rim that have been few and far between this season.

Porter’s outside jumper hasn’t been as precise in recent games, but he’s making up for it in other ways. The athleticism is slowly but surely returning, but more importantly, the coordination and ability to read the court on those drives seems to be leveling up. It’s an aspect of his game that hasn’t translated as well as the shooting and cutting, but the Nuggets could absolutely use more off-the-dribble creation out of him now and in the future.

Oh, and both Murray and Porter excelled defensively, playing big roles in limiting the Clippers to 102 points in Los Angeles.

DeAndre Jordan and Zeke Nnaji step up

Obviously, the biggest variable in any game without Nikola Jokić becomes the center minutes. DeAndre Jordan started despite Zeke Nnaji being in the rotation, but it seems that Michael Malone was hoping for continuity with the bench unit and screening with the starters.

Mission accomplished on both fronts.

Jordan had one of his best games of the season, scoring eight points on 4-of-4 from the field. He grabbed six rebounds and also dished three assists in 26 minutes, setting up Nuggets cutters and movers in positions reminiscent of the way Jokić does it. Obviously, nobody can replace Jokić, but Jordan did find some nice passing pockets within the flow of the game. That helped the offense keep it moving throughout the first three quarters.

Nnaji played 19 minutes himself (Aaron Gordon played the final two center minutes of the game, an interesting wrinkle). Nnaji was a bit more up and down and had to survive two separate poster dunks on him by Kawhi Leonard and John Wall. He emerged on the other side with a good performance though, scoring 9 points and grabbing 7 rebounds, including 6 offensive boards. His ability to switch and guard on the perimeter continues to be impactful, and the lineup the Nuggets ran featuring the starters with Nnaji at center was perhaps Denver’s most switchable defensive unit they’ve ever employed. It helped against the Clippers, that’s for sure.

Overall, a great performance from Denver’s two centers in the face of adversity. It’s tough to replace Jokić, and the Nuggets did it as a team. Jordan and Nnaji deserve a ton of credit.

Final Rotations