Ja Morant, Grizzlies carve up Nuggets to spoil Nikola Jokic’s triple-double

If it wasn’t already institutional knowledge around the NBA, it is now. Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is a problem.

The soaring superstar was at it again Friday night at Ball Arena. Morant carved up Denver’s defense en route to a 122-118 Grizzlies win. It’s the third time this season Memphis has knocked off the Nuggets – a disconcerting trend for a potential first-round opponent this spring.

Morant sprung for 38 points to the chagrin of the handful of defenders who tried to contain him. Not even Aaron Gordon could quell Morant’s incessant drives, scintillating dribbles and relentless attacks.

“It seemed like, at times, they were playing at a different speed than us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Memphis’ size and spirit spoiled Nikola Jokic’s fourth triple-double in as many games. Denver’s franchise centerpiece tallied 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists, but his line couldn’t overshadow Memphis’ towering presence. The Grizzlies poured in 58 points in the paint and bludgeoned Denver on the glass, 48-37.

A healthy DeMarcus Cousins can’t come soon enough. Denver’s latest addition sat out Friday’s game, which marked the first day of his 10-day contract. The four-time All-Star went through warm-ups but was a game-time decision due to a minor injury issue, according to Nuggets coach Michael Malone. He ultimately didn’t play and had to watch the Grizzlies bully the Nuggets inside.

Their other addition, Bryn Forbes, managed nine points on just 4-of-13 shooting on the night.

“I know I’m better than I played tonight,” Forbes said.

Will Barton poured in a team-high 27 points, including 12 in the fourth as the Nuggets fought to keep it close. Monte Morris added 17 but no assists.

The Nuggets, who got two points from their bench in the second half, fell to 23-21 on the season and will close their six-game homestand against Detroit on Sunday.

Carrying the same energy they used to end the first half, the Nuggets blitzed the Grizzlies with a 19-8 run to open the third quarter. Jokic hunted for his shot inside, often playing through the more physical Steven Adams. Four minutes into the quarter, after Jokic corralled an offensive rebound, he stopped mid-play and stared at the official on a no-call. Play eventually resumed when Jokic found Jeff Green cutting through the lane for a jam, but his exasperation was evident.

Meanwhile, Morant kept coming. His swerving, spinning drives gave Denver guards fits, and he penetrated the lane with ease. Morant managed 13 points in the third quarter alone, and the Grizzlies took a 98-92 lead into the fourth.

Forbes’ debut was a decent one. He buried his first jumper in a Nuggets uniform midway through the first and then continued hoisting whenever he found space. Even though he wasn’t efficient, he took the shots the Nuggets needed him to. Expect him to be a valuable spoke in the second unit moving forward.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone knew exactly what type of challenge the Grizzlies presented: an athletic, physical, imposing outfit that has shown no fear during their swift ascent.

“It does start with Ja Morant,” Malone said. “This young man is electric. Athletically, he’s just so gifted. He can get to anywhere on the court, he can finish in traffic, he can dunk on you. We’ve all seen the blocked shots that he’s had. He’s playing both ends of the floor. His 3-point shot has improved.”

After Morant, the Nuggets’ scouting report prioritized keeping them out of transition, out of the paint and off the glass. It didn’t, however, highlight their perimeter shooting, which was blistering in the first half Friday night.

Memphis jumped out to a 68-63 halftime lead on the strength of 10 first-half 3-pointers. Morant hit two of them, but others came as a result of the defensive attention he commanded. He spliced Denver’s defense for 23 points on 14 shots over the first two quarters.

Jokic was productive, with 10 points and eight rebounds early, but was hardly the imposing force he was in Wednesday’s dominant showing. His deep 3-pointer to end the first half gave the Nuggets some tangible momentum into the break.

Malone, livid after a physical play didn’t yield a foul for Jokic, picked up a first-half technical that had been brewing.

 

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