As of today, the Grizzlies are first in the Western Conference standings – one full game above both our southern brethren in the New Orleans Pelicans and our foe on Tuesday night, the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets game will provide an important measuring stick for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have had the third best offense in the month of December and the second best defense. As they continue this four game road trip against playoff level competition, the Grizzlies have an opportunity to remind the league that their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder – a team lacking both their star players in Shai Gilgeous Alexander and Josh Giddy – was a fluke. The real story is the story of a team that has dominated this month as they round into playing their best basketball of the season. And they will have a chance to tell this story to a national television audience as the next three games will be on TNT, ESPN, and finally ABC on Christmas Day against the Warriors.
Tuesday’s matchup features the 2nd best offense in the league in the Nuggets and the 5th best defense in the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have three major problems that will require their full attention if they want to pull off a victory at altitude.
The first is Jamal Murray, who is playing well after missing all of last season due to an ACL injury. Don’t be fooled by Murray’s lower points per game number (17.5), a stat at its lowest point since any season since his second season. Murray’s +/- rating is elite this year at +15.3, which is good enough for 97th percentile among all players in the league according to Cleaning the Glass. He is finding his rhythm, assisting at a career rate (5.4), and playing 31 minutes per night for coach Mike Malone.
The second is Murray’s frontcourt counterpart and two-time league MVP Nikola Jokic. The big fella is +28.9 on the season – literally the best mark in the league. He is averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists – a near triple double! – and he continues to dominate from the center position. Jokic is also extremely durable: he has missed 40 TOTAL games since starting his NBA career in 2015, and the Serbian big man has earned all star appearances in each of the last four years. He appears bound for the all star game in Salt Lake City again this year as the Joker continues his campaign for another league MVP.
Michael Porter Jr. is having a nice bounce back season after only appearing in 9 games last season, averaging 16.4 points and shooting 43% from three on 7 attempts. Limiting Porter’s impact on the perimeter will have to be a priority. The Grizzlies are giving up 13 three pointers per game, which is third worst in the league. Keep an eye on this space.
To stop the Nuggets the Grizzlies might first focus on passing. The Nuggets are a high assist team, and Jokic is a huge part of that. The Nuggets are currently second in the league with 28.2 assists per game. Finding ways to limit the Nuggets passing, especially from Jokic, will be key.
The Grizzlies will likely pin Dillon Brooks on Jamal Murray, although he may take a turn on MPJ if the 6’10” forward heats up. Jon Konchar is undersized at the three guarding MPJ, but Jaren Jackson, Jr. will likely have his hands full with Aaron Gordon inside. MPJ’s performance could be a tipping point for this Nugget’s team. Keep an eye out: it’s possible the Grizzlies will match up Santi Aldama against MPJ as they seek to find a match for the long forward’s length.
Keep that second eye on the boards: the Grizzlies lead the league in rebounds per game with 49.1. The Grizzlies tend to win if they win the boards, and Steven Adams will be critical against the size and skill of Jokic.The Grizzlies are 4th best in the league in second chance points with nearly 17 per game. If the Grizzlies can earn extra possessions by winning the battle on the glass, this one might go their way.
Two other categories to watch: paint points and assists. The Grizzlies are a league best 57.7 ppg in the paint. The Nuggets are also excellent at 55.1 ppg. I don’t think the Nuggets have the personnel or the skill to stop the Grizzlies paint attack. If the Grizzlies guards can get a foot in the paint on most possessions, they will have the advantage all night in interior scoring.
And getting a foot in the paint is often the best way to create a wide open three. The Grizzlies are middle of the pack this year in assists, but in December they are averaging 27 per game – 6th best. If the Grizzlies can beat the Nuggets on the glass, in the paint, and with assists, they will come out of this game with a victory.
There are lots of game time decisions for the Nuggets, including their three stars:
Kentavious Caldwell Pope (leg), our old friend Jamaychal Green (back), Jokic (knee), Murray (Knee), and MPJ (heel). Let’s hope everyone can play on Tuesday and these Grizzlies can kick off their nationally televised slate of holiday games with a W.