Inside Denver’s comeback against Memphis and the Nuggets ace in the hole

Mar 4, 2023, 1:14 AM | Updated: 6:21 am
Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon...
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets only needed 24 minutes to turn it on and pound the Memphis Grizzlies into oblivion 113-97, taking the season series and a nearly insurmountable lead in the NBA’s Western Conference.

But to understand how first-place Denver boat raced second-place Memphis 63-39 in the second half on Friday night to score the significant win, you have to rewind.

First, you have to go back to Jamal Murray playing AAU ball with Dillion Brooks, and going against each other in high school and then throughout the years.

“He’s out there trying to get a stop and I’m out there to try to score a bucket, it’s just really fun,” Murray said. “And you know, we love playing like that. We’ve been doing that for a long time.”

Murray grew up 40 minutes from Brooks and their families know each other well. Friday was another chapter for them but it was the first primetime showing of a battle we may see play out for years ahead.

Murray was held to 11 points through three quarters by the stout Brooks. As Denver tried to get Memphis’ best defender off of their point guard, Murray ended up challenging his old friend. Using an absurd hopping spin jumper with the shot clock ticking down at the start of the fourth to ignite a flurry, scoring 11 points in the quarter.

Murray’s Nikola Jokic-less stint at the start of the fourth took the Nuggets from tied to a nice lead. It was Murray’s 21-foot spin shot that was the Nuggets second field goal without Jokic on the floor. The first came 41 seconds earlier when he assisted an Aaron Gordon AND-1 finish.

Rewind again—because while Murray being back and his ever improving game this season was obviously what the Nuggets missed the past two seasons, but it’s hard to qualify their all-world point guard as an ace in the hole. Everyone knows who Murray is and what the Blue Arrow can cook up.

You see an ace in the hole is an advantage over your rivals that you only use when necessary, key word being necessary.

Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth hinted last week that the team’s brass had considered playing Gordon at center.

Fast forward.

The Nuggets have only lost one non-COVID impacted game at home this season. With a 28-4 record in Denver, they found themselves in a rare spot—down at halftime and facing real adversity. Particularly they couldn’t get any shots to fall, having one of their worst three-point shooting halves of the season.

While Denver came out roaring in the third, Michael Malone has to take two-time MVP Jokic out at some point for rest. As usual he came out with a handful of minutes left in the third frame. Unable to muster more than a single point the first time Jokic rested backup bigman Thomas Bryant at least brought a physical style, earning two shots at the foul line. He hit both. It was Bryant’s battle with Jarren Jackson Jr. that turned physical, spilling over to each side of the floor. But Bryant’s night ended early when he and Jackson collided and Bryant tumbled.

In came Gordon to play center.


It was the Nuggets first game against Memphis that earned backup power forward Vlatko Cancar a spot in the rotation that he’s played well in ever since. In a 28 game span he’s playing 20 minutes a night, adding seven points, three rebounds and two assists on 40% shooting from deep. Cancar stepped up and got the spot, because Jeff Green who had the role to start the season got injured. Green has been up-and-down since coming back but has consistently played since backup center Zeke Nnaji got hurt.

All of this is to say, when Bryant went down Malone had limited options, turn to DeAndre Jordan who has played 11 minutes in a month, stretch Jokic’s minutes while in foul trouble, or go undersized with Green and Gordon in the frontcourt.

He chose the the last option, and that also requires a slight rewind.

The only reason Memphis has fallen so far behind Denver compared to where these two teams were the last time they matched up in the Mile High City is an injury. The Grizzles are now 7-9 since starting center Steven Adams went down. Xavier Tillman has done a great job in Adams’ place even slowing Jokic in the Nuggets blowout loss to Memphis six days before. But it’s also Brandon Clarke who has stepped up, playing a handful more minutes off the bench and making for a good duo with star guard Ja Morant.

As the first quarter closed Clarke went down with a devastating leg injury, leaving the court and the arena.

Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins was forced to shorten his bench and go smaller.

Combining the Nuggets necessity and the unfortunate opportunity created by several injuries on both sides, the Denver found their ace in the hole—Gordon playing the five.

Moreover, Gordon playing the five with a shortened bench and staggering two starters at once. A hint of something we should see postseason time but hadn’t yet.

Rewind. I asked Malone before the game if the Nuggets would hold anything back to not give Memphis the tape in case of a playoff matchup. Malone said no, the team would be full throttle.

And that’s how the four minutes and 27 seconds that may have changed the outlook on Denver’s bench was born. The Nuggets went on a 13-6 run in that stretch before Jokic checked back in, who would build on it for his unit’s own 14-0 run to make the first seven minutes of the fourth larger 27-6 shellacking by Denver.

“It’s a new game, when you have Joker he plays the one, it’s a positionless game,” an astute Gordon told Denver Sports. “Whatever number you put on me, you just gotta put five guys out there that compete. I feel comfortable.”

Gordon’s new spot and Murray’s flurry ignited the Nuggets best fourth quarter of the season. Them two with a rejuvenated Jeff Green, versatile Bruce Brown and veteran Reggie Jackson, time traveled Denver ahead to what Ball Arena might be seeing in two months. And it was the first time Denver’s bench looked competitive since the trade deadline makeover.

Gordon had 13 points and five rebounds, Murray 22 points and nine assists, neither as eye-popping as  Michael Porter Jr.’s 26 points or Jokic’s league-leading 25th triple-double. But it wasn’t about the numbers, it was about the vibes, and if anyone has them it’s Gordon.

So yeah the Nuggets found their ace in the hole. Oh and they got their x-factor too, it’s you—the Ball Arena faithful that turns the Nuggets from good to great, and guess what? Because of Friday night’s win, the west will be won in Denver.

“The fans give us confidence, it really helps,” Murray said.


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Inside Denver’s comeback against Memphis and the Nuggets ace in the hole