The Denver Nuggets return to action for the first time since the NBA All-Star break on Friday, travelling to Memphis, Tennessee to face a Grizzlies team as close to full strength as it has been this season.
Live NBA: Denver @ Memphis 12.03
Playing its first game in eight days, Denver is looking to conclude a five-game road swing that began on February 27 a perfect 5-0. The Nuggets won the fourth of their consecutive road games on March 4, 113-103 at Indiana, behind three 20-point-plus efforts.
Among them was Nikola Jokic, who flirted with a triple-double at 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Jokic played his way into a starting spot at last weekend’s All-Star Game with averages of 27.1 points, 11 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game.
“[I am] playing the way I’ve played since I was a kid, and I’m just lucky to have coaches who gave me freedom in the past, and (Nuggets) coach (Michael) Malone gave me the freedom right now,” Jokic said of his ability to make an impact in multiple phases of the game from the center position.
This season marked Jokic’s third straight as an All-Star, and the Denver post presence is a contender for the 2020-21 Most Valuable Player Award.
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins campaigned for Grizzlies second-year guard Ja Morant to receive an All-Star roster spot. Although Morant did not land his first All-Star selection, the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year leads a Memphis squad in contention for a playoff berth with 19.8 points and 7.8 assists per game.
Morant missed eight games early in the campaign due to an ankle injury. Since his return on January 16, the Grizzlies are two games over .500, including a 127-112 defeat of Washington on Wednesday in their first game back from the break.
Morant was one of two Grizzlies with double-doubles in the win, scoring 21 points and dishing 10 assists. Jonas Valanciunas scored 29 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.
Valanciunas likely draws the assignment opposite Jokic on Friday, as Memphis seeks back-to-back big defensive performances. On Wednesday against Washington, it was guard Dillon Brooks with the honours against NBA-leading scorer Bradley Beal.
Brooks helped limit Beal to 21 points on 6-of-22 shooting from the floor.
“I just rise to the occasion and take on the challenge and see if he can last a full 48 [minutes] with a lot of physicality,” Brooks said in his postgame press conference.
With Valanciunas on Jokic on the interior, Brooks and the Grizzlies perimeter defenders will try to contain Jamal Murray. The Denver guard comes into Friday’s matchup averaging 21.8 points per game and has scored at least 23 points in every game since February 14.
On February 19, Murray scored a career-high 50 points against Cleveland. Limiting Denver, the NBA’s fourth-highest scoring offense at 115.9 points per game, is not a one- or two-man task. Memphis will be able to go deeper into its rotation than it has much of the season.
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