“It was a poor possession. We have to be better than that.”

Michael Malone was disappointed with the final play the Denver Nuggets ran in an attempt to generate a game-tying three-pointer. Jamal Murray caught the ball near the left sideline and dribbled out the clock, pump faking and misfiring a three with New York Knicks forward Cam Reddish on the right side of the court.

The Nuggets ended up losing to the Knicks 106-103, succumbing to the physicality of a close game where one team turned it up at the end and the other team didn’t. The Nuggets didn’t have Nikola Jokić (health and safety protocols) or Aaron Gordon (non-Covid illness), and the Knicks clearly took advantage of their absence. Julius Randle bullied his way to 34 points after making an array of jumpers in the first half, and the Knicks finished with 50 points in the paint compared to Denver’s 34.

“Obviously, it’s better to have Joker and Aaron,” Murray stated plainly. “We had enough to get it done. We just let go of the rope I think. They turned it up, and we didn’t adjust quick enough, and that really gave them the edge.”

The Nuggets don’t have a lot of experience operating without their best player. Jokić leads the NBA in plus-minus (heading into tonight) for a reason, clearly having an impact on his teammates in many facets. Not having his ability to direct offense was obviously missed, and the Nuggets struggled to get to good spots on the court without giving up freebies.

“We couldn’t score [down the stretch],” Malone noted postgame. “We also couldn’t take care of [the basketball]. In the fourth quarter, we gave up five turnovers for eight points, and they became very aggressive and blew us up.”


Here are my three primary takeaways from the Nuggets’ matchup against the Knicks on Wednesday night:

Jamal Murray steps up, Michael Porter Jr. steps back

While the Nuggets weren’t at a “disadvantage” tonight, playing without your best player can be tough on everybody involved. The Nuggets made it work through the first three quarters though, and Murray was a big part of that.

The Nuggets needed their point guard to generate just about everything while he was out there, and Murray stepped up to the plate. Murray played 33 minutes, finishing the game with 21 points, 6 assists, and even 9 rebounds, shooting 7-of-20 from the field and 3-of-7 from three in the process. The shots dried up for Murray in the fourth quarter, but he was a big reason why the Nuggets were in the game in the first place.

“I don’t know, I just missed some shots,” a frustrated Murray shared of the fourth quarter struggles tonight. “Some really good looks…the first person i look at is myself [for why we lost].”

Porter, on the other hand, had another forgettable night. In 28 minutes, Porter scored five points on 1-of-8 from the field. He didn’t attempt a shot in the second half and wasn’t seeking out his own shot opportunities as the game progressed, perhaps making the determination that he’d be better off passing.

“Michael’s gotta stay aggressive,” Malone emphasized. “I can’t stay aggressive for him. He’s gotta play better than he played tonight.”

Nuggets open up the rotation

Everything changes when Jokić and Gordon both go out, especially the frontcourt rotation. Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan started in their place, helping to hold down the fort while Murray went to work in the starting unit.

Off the bench, Bones Hyland returned and gave the Nuggets some great minutes as a floor spacer. He hit multiple clutch three-pointers at various points in the game, including a buzzer beater to end the third quarter. His buckets in the fourth quarter also kept the game close.

In the front court, Zeke Nnaji played extended minutes, doing some good things as a finisher around the rim and even grabbing some offensive rebounds. Vlatko Čančar also had an extended run with an all-bench second unit in the second half that performed pretty well.

Malone made sure to credit Nnaji for stepping up when called upon.

“I thought overall he was great…13 points, three boards, made a three, got to the foul line, physical, active worked the glass,” Malone noted. “I know it’s been tough for him, not playing as much as he’d like, but he stays ready.”

The Nuggets have a few guys that can play on any given night. Determining who plays every night is far more challenging. Nnaji showcased some good things in the second half but struggled in the first. DeAndre Jordan was good as a screener, but he missed a wide open dunk tonight and has trouble impacting the game outside of the restricted area. How Denver works their rotation without Jokić will be interesting going forward, but don’t be surprised to see Jordan’s and Nnaji’s minutes shift at some point.

Creating offense without Joker is hard

As it turns out, playing without the two-time MVP can be difficult.

Jokić missed Wednesday’s game due to health and safety protocols, and the Nuggets offense struggled as a result. Denver generated just nine assists in the first half, relying on the individual exploits of several players to go 1-on-1 for their baskets. In the second half, they matched that assist total with another nine, finishing with just 18 assists on the night. That number that would rank last in the NBA in assists per game among all NBA teams.

“[Their physicality] just took us out of our offense,” Murray noted. “We got a little discombobulated. Probably the best word. As a group. Not just individually but as a group, and that put us in a tough spot.”

The Nuggets starters scored zero points in the fourth quarter with the Knicks pressuring the ball and playing a physical brand of defense that the Nuggets couldn’t handle. Jokić often handles those situations well, baiting defenses into fouls and using their aggressiveness against them. Murray and Porter especially will have to improve when the physicality ramps up going forward, but life will definitely be easier when Jokić returns.

Final Rotations