The first time Nikola Jokic got around an open 3-pointer on Friday night was curious. A second time raised a few more eyebrows.
When presented with another open 3-pointer in the second quarter, Jokic finally got going, despite a taped wrist that hampered his pre-season. Jokic probably won’t admit how much, if at all, that wrist bothered him, but his game could be telling. In all fairness, he buried one from the outside in the third quarter.
Jokic wouldn’t have played in Denver’s last exhibition against the Warriors — a 119-112 win — had there been a long-term concern about exposing him to direct contact. That doesn’t mean it’s not a nuisance.
Jokic and the Nuggets will head into next Wednesday’s season opener in Utah with the same (health) concerns that have robbed them of a legitimate title for the past two seasons. No matter how you turn it, not being able to play against Jamal Murray the last three games of the pre-season due to a hamstring adjustment wasn’t ideal, nor was having to deal with Jokic’s wrist injury.
Nonetheless, time is up and every game from now counts after Denver won its last three preseason games to finish 3-2. Here’s what counted in Friday’s result.
The wearer’s health: Of Denver’s Big 3, Michael Porter Jr. is the only one to have had zero limitations since training camp. His health and ability to jump don’t seem to have diminished after his third back surgery last season.
And in an odd twist, Murray’s absence on Friday may have helped shelter the budding chemistry between Jokic and Porter. Several times during the first half, Jokic searched for Porter, finding him with space or creating that space himself with a screen. Their interaction was intriguing, as was Porter’s willingness to give the ball away. The Nuggets preach, relentlessly, to give the ball away and it will find you. The latest games, it looks like Porter is buying it.
When he dropped the ball for an Aaron Gordon dunk, it was a perfect synthesis of the selfless play the Nuggets preached. On other occasions, he dropped it to later regain it in possession.
Defensively, there was even an instance in the third quarter where he fought against a screen while defending Andrew Wiggins. Two years ago, he would have conceded this change.
Porter seems to have heeded Michael Malone’s message that defense should deserve the same attention as his offense.
After a lackluster second quarter where the Nuggets gave up 36 points, they put the pliers in the third quarter, outscoring the Warriors 42-20.
second unit: Murray’s absence meant Bruce Brown won the start, improving the defensive versatility of the starting unit but depriving the bench unit of a second ball handler.
Sometimes, with Bones Hyland in the lead, it showed. Hyland was the only real designer among Davon Reed, Christian Braun, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. In the first half, there were sequences where this formation got bogged down. With Brown available alongside Hyland, that’s not going to happen. This is another reason why Ish Smith should be used more than a typical third-string point guard. Smith and Hyland set a pace in the second half.
Malone apparently also made another decision by playing Jordan against Zeke Nnaji, despite his strong camp. Considering Nnaji’s earnings, it’s hard to imagine him being fully benched for Jordan. What’s more likely is a platoon system, where each game responds to its respective strengths.