Nikola Jokic raised his scratched arm and clenched his right fist in triumph.
Naturally, it was a teammate’s accomplishment he was celebrating.
The Nuggets welcomed the top-seeded Grizzlies on Tuesday evening and promptly made a 105-91 statement for their best win of the season. Jokic manipulated the Grizzlies’ defense and conducted Denver’s offense like it was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
He finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists for his sixth triple-double of the season, tying him with Luka Doncic for the most in the NBA.
“Nikola should go somewhere and bet No. 13,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone quipped.
In addition to his individual line, Jokic finished a plus-13. The Nuggets improved to 19-11 on the season and moved into a tie with the Grizzlies for first place in the West.
“It’s just one game,” Malone emphasized postgame while failing to disguise how proud he was of the defense.
Twice in the fourth quarter, Jokic extended his arm and flexed in appreciation of Aaron Gordon. Denver’s high-flying power forward finished with 24 points, including a momentum-swinging corner 3-pointer while the game was still in the balance late in the fourth.
Bruce Brown added 16 points, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 12 points and snatched seven rebounds. Together, they had to contend with Ja Morant, whose 35 points paced the Grizzlies.
But outside of Morant, Denver’s defense was stifling. Memphis shot just 5 for 26 from 3-point range.
Tired of the traditional assists, Jokic added his unique brand of artistic flair once the third quarter came around. On one sequence, he dumped the ball between his legs for a blind assist to a slashing Brown. On another, he flipped the ball over his shoulder to a cutting Gordon. On yet another, he fed Christian Braun on a fastbreak outlet for a jam. When he wasn’t serving up devilish dimes to his teammates, he stepped out and buried a 3-pointer to stretch Memphis’ defense even further.
When Grizzlies center Steven Adams was asked Tuesday morning whether there was a mutual respect between he and Jokic, the New Zealander didn’t disappoint.
“I think so,” Adams said. “I think it might just be this international clan. It’s kinda weird. We kinda just mock Americans behind their backs. Just so you guys know.”
The Grizzlies won the third quarter — 31-29 — but a huge reason why Denver maintained its margin was because of Braun, the stout wing who earned his first career start. Whether it was blocking Morant, running the floor hard or stepping confidently into his 3s, Braun looked like a polished player more than a rookie. The Nuggets carried an 84-71 lead into the fourth, but given their recent history and Morant’s swagger, no lead felt safe.
According to Jamal Murray, Malone was uneasy about letting him play through knee soreness in Sunday’s win over Charlotte. Despite the national TV audience, Murray sat after going through a slight pre-game warmup.
“It’s definitely a tough one because I have to be the adult,” Malone said before the game. “I have to be the guy that’s not just living in the moment, but also taking kind of a big picture approach. We’ve also been together for seven years, and we have a relationship where we can be totally honest with each other.”
In auditing Sunday’s win, Malone also said he’d evaluate how to get the most out of his inconsistent bench. At least Tuesday, that unit included Nnaji.
“We have to find out if Zeke Nnaji can be a part of this team,” Malone said. “… Now it’s my job to get him out there and play him — not just one game and sit five. No one can do that. It’s almost like Zeke needs an extended chance to show what he can do to help this team. He deserves that opportunity.”
The Nuggets authored their most complete half of the season in staking a 55-40 lead going into halftime. Memphis’ 40 points represented the fewest Denver had allowed in a half all year. Their defense flew around, forced turnovers, contested shots and, as a result, found pay-dirt in transition.
Jeff Green’s second-quarter transition dunk registered on the Richter scale, forcing Memphis into a quick timeout. Overall, the bench competed with Nnaji, Vlatko Cancar, Green, Bones Hyland and Brown and Caldwell-Pope staggered with that unit.
Jokic was sound, but he wasn’t the vacuum cleaner he needed to be two nights earlier in grabbing a career-high 27 rebounds. Brown had a team-high 12 points, while Gordon (nine) and Braun (eight) were more than adequate in supporting roles.
All three, in addition to Caldwell-Pope, swarmed Morant and limited him to just 13 points on 6-of-13 shooting in the first half.