DENVER – The Denver Nuggets put up a valiant effort but ultimately fell short 112-95 against the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night. While the loss dropped the Nuggets to 30-27 on the season, there were still some bright spots for Denver that showed this team’s potential when firing on all cylinders.
Chief among them was the play of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. Despite being the focus of Milwaukee’s smothering defense, Jokic still managed to put up 22 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists. As has become the norm, Jokic displayed his full arsenal of offensive skills against the Bucks. He knocked down feathery soft jumpers, punished smaller defenders in the post, and sprayed pinpoint passes across the court to open teammates.
Perhaps most impressive was Jokic’s court vision and passing creativity. He pulled off several highlight reel assists, including a full court outlet pass to a streaking Bruce Brown for a dunk in transition. Jokic also rifled cross court skip passes out of the post to the opposite corner for open threes on multiple occasions.
“He’s just an amazing talent, one of one,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said postgame when asked about Jokic. “There’s no one that combines his size, skill, passing and vision at the center position. He lifts our whole team up.”
While Jokic did his part, the rest of the Nuggets struggled to find their rhythm against Milwaukee’s length and athleticism. One player that rose to the occasion was rookie guard Christian Braun, who scored a career-high 16 points on 5-9 shooting off the bench. The 21st overall pick in last year’s draft, Braun gave Nuggets fans a glimpse of his potential as a spark plug scorer.
“I thought Christian gave us great minutes tonight,” Malone said. “He’s not afraid of the moment. For a young rookie playing against the defending champs, he stepped up and was ready to compete.”
Braun provided a valuable secondary scoring option next to Jokic. He knocked down open jumpers, got out in transition, and was able to create his own shot off the dribble. With his high basketball IQ and non-stop motor, Braun looks like a piece the Nuggets can count on as they make a playoff push down the stretch.
Two other young players that stood out for the Nuggets were Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji. Though they both struggled shooting the ball, combining to go just 5-19 from the field, they brought energy and activity on both ends. Hyland’s lightning quick first step and deep shooting range make him an explosive X-factor. Nnaji is an athletic big who can run the floor and make plays above the rim.
Both Hyland and Nnaji figure to see expanded roles for the Nuggets after the recent season-ending injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
“We’re confident in the young guys we have to step up in those minutes,” Malone said. “Bones, Zeke, Christian, those guys bring certain skill sets that can help us. Now it’s up to them to seize the opportunity.”
Indeed, the Nuggets will need their youngsters to mature quickly if they hope to stabilize and make noise in the loaded Western Conference. Though veterans like Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown contribute, Denver’s ceiling will be determined by the development of their youth.
If Monday’s flashes of brilliance against the Bucks are any indicator, the future remains bright for the Nuggets franchise. This team has the centerpiece in Jokic and emerging talent around him. In what has been a trying season, there were promising signs in this loss that should give Nuggets fans hope. The playoff hunt is far from over.