When Clippers forward Marcus Morris wrapped his arms around Nikola Jokic, heaving the two-time MVP to the ground, it was impossible not to consider the recent history.
Meaningless preseason game or not, Morris could’ve been (might have been?) responding to the ugly incident last season with his brother. But amid the move, Morris inadvertently knocked Jokic into the back of Norm Powell’s leg. It was fair to say, in that instant, there was no love lost between the Nuggets and Clippers, two teams with legitimate NBA Finals aspirations out of the West.
Both teams suffered a lost season last year. Now healthy, both are among the leading contenders in the conference.
With the 126-115 win, Denver drew first blood and will wrap up its preseason schedule Friday in San Francisco. Here’s what mattered:
Jokic back: Sporting tape around his right wrist, Jokic was available after missing the last two games due to a sprain. He didn’t shoot much — perhaps a result of lingering soreness in that wrist — but he did facilitate like he always does. He racked up four assists in the first four minutes of the contest, infusing his greatest weapon into Denver’s already-formidable offense.
While Jamal Murray (hamstring) and Bones Hyland (left ankle strain) sat due to minor injuries, it was a reminder, yet again, that the Nuggets’ point-center is more than capable of making Denver’s offense cook. With seven assists in the first half, Jokic was the primary playmaker of an offense that posted 74 points in the first half.
With Jokic dishing like he did Wednesday, although the Nuggets would like him to score, he doesn’t need to. Due to the injuries, he was flanked by numerous cutters and shooters — basically his ideal running mates. Bruce Brown was an early beneficiary when he kept cutting through the lane and received an easy dime from Jokic for a layup. Michael Porter Jr. took two feeds from Jokic and converted them into silky 3-pointers. Aaron Gordon registered 12 points and five rebounds in the first half, feasting on the open space bought by Denver’s perimeter snipers.
But as much as Brown and Porter benefitted off Jokic’s vision, his passing freed up another starter even more.
Here comes KCP: Earlier this training camp, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope vowed he was going to “eat” in Denver’s offense. The shots had been there in the first three games, but they hadn’t fallen with the regularity anyone anticipated. That changed on Wednesday. Caldwell-Pope had 14 in the first half, including two 3-pointers. Of his four field goals, Jokic assisted on three of them.
Like Brown, Caldwell-Pope has quickly learned that if he cuts, he’ll be rewarded. And as a reliable corner 3-point shooter, he’s either going to be the reason teams hesitate to double-team Jokic, or he’ll be the beneficiary if they do.
Any lineup featuring Caldwell-Pope, Gordon and Brown has immense defensive potential. Their switch-ability and aggressiveness could be a staple of Michael Malone’s rotations come the regular season.
Backup battle? Most of the rotation appears to be set. At center, both Zeke Nnaji and DeAndre Jordan, who rested on Wednesday, have acquitted themselves well. Nnaji, in particular, has seized on his positive offseason and carried it into training camp. His physical gains are obvious, and the game is slowing for him.
The other interesting battle is at backup small forward, where first-round pick Christian Braun can’t help but make a play. His motor is relentless and his confidence, in his first NBA experience, is noteworthy. He reached double-digits in scoring for the second consecutive game and flashed his athleticism with two breakaway dunks.
Veteran Davon Reed, who hit both his 3-point tries, might have something to say about Braun’s rise. He’s a reliable two-way wing with some amount of equity built up with the organization. Both players deserve a look with the second unit once the games start to matter.