It will likely register as little more than a blip by the end of a long regular season, but in a vacuum, Monday night’s 106-103 Nuggets win over the Raptors was a thrilling back-and-forth game between two teams at the top of their respective conferences who have thus far proved their bona fides as contenders. All eyes had been on Toronto after its statement win over the Warriors on national television last Thursday, but Denver’s efforts over the past week deserve your attention. The Nuggets have won six in a row, with resounding victories over the Blazers, Lakers, Thunder, the new-look Wolves, the better-than-most Magic, and now the best team (record-wise) in the league. Glance at the top of the West and you’ll see the Nuggets, a team that is deep, relentless, and most importantly, for real.
Against one of the best offenses in the league, the Nuggets won the way they’ve won all season long: with defense. Toronto’s 103 points were the second lowest they’ve scored all season. After being carried by their high-powered offense last season, Denver came into this season with a newfound emphasis on defensive improvement. So far, it’s worked. The Nuggets got off to a raging 9-1 start to the season (to the surprise of many), and though things leveled off during a 1-6 stretch in mid-November, the team has resumed its shockingly effective ways. The team has boasted the third-best defense in the league during its six-game winning streak, allowing only 98.8 points per 100 possessions.
“In the past, if we’d struggle to make shots, we’d lose those games,” assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. told me back in November. On Monday, the Nuggets shot 44 percent from the field, lower than their season average. “The mind-set is now that we’ll stay in the game with our defense, and eventually we’ll make enough shots to win the game.”
Oddly enough, one of the most high-powered offenses of the past two seasons is still trying to find out what works on that end of the floor this season; the 3-ball isn’t falling the way it had before. But things have turned for the better as of late. Denver’s back in the top 10 in offensive rating, and should things hold for the rest of the season, it’ll be firmly in the sweet spot: Having an offensive and defensive rating in the top third of the league has been the mark of a true contender for decades. The Nuggets appear to have found balanced units that work on both ends of the floor, and that’s a recipe for success both now and in the future. (This is where I remind you that their core three of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris are all under 25 years old.)
Jokic may be the focal point of the Nuggets offense, but the team doesn’t live and die by each of his scoring possessions the way other teams rely on their star player. A Jokic-powered offense is different, in a good way, and Monday night was a perfect case study. Jokic was über-efficient, putting up a breezy triple-double but prioritizing his passing (15 assists) in order to get Jamal Murray (21 points), Juancho Hernangomez (15 points), and Malik Beasley (15 points) going. It was the type of night when Jokic was humming like a 7-foot Steve Nash moving the ball around like a pinball machine.
This pass by Jokic.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) December 4, 2018
You kidding me???? pic.twitter.com/MmtTU1FJof
Jokic’s presence on the floor maximizes those within his orbit. The organization he provides the team is less of a hierarchy than it is an economy. Alongside Jokic, every player can be useful by sticking to their strengths. The Nuggets are fueled by effective cutters and shot-makers who make themselves available to Jokic. Nobody needs to be exceptional; they just need to do their job. Jokic is that good. The beauty of this Nuggets team, though, is that even then, players like Murray still have the freedom to score 48 points on any given night, and unsung heroes like Paul Millsap can have exceptional defensive nights on top of what Jokic already does. When the Nuggets show off their flexibility is when they become elite.
Denver is in prime position. While their mid-November disappointments prove they aren’t immune to letdown performances, the statement wins that the team is racking up show growth. Only the Pistons and Bucks can also claim victories over both the Warriors and Raptors this season. The best may be yet to come. Will Barton has played only two games thus far this season due to hip surgery. Harris played nine minutes before he exited the game from a hip injury of his own. Isaiah Thomas is still out. On Monday this meant that head coach Mike Malone tried to get the Raptors to take that L by playing his entire five-man bench double-digit minutes. For a team like the Rockets, having to stretch minutes out through the entire roster would spell disaster, but for the Nuggets, leaning into their depth is actually tapping into one of their core strengths.
And that may the scariest part about the potential the Nuggets have shown early on: We have yet to see them at full strength.