LOS ANGELES — For more than a week, the Nuggets knew only that they were themselves. With new competition, Monday’s preseason opener against the Clippers breathed new life into Denver’s training camp.
The result, a 103–102 Clippers win, didn’t matter much. But for the first game since Denver was swept out of the playoffs against the Suns, it was an intriguing display.
This is what stood out.
Emerging MPJ: It took 15 minutes to see what Michael Porter Jr. added to his arsenal. The 6-foot-10, newly minted max player dropped 16 points and grabbed four rebounds in barely more than 10 minutes in the first quarter. In addition to a tighter handle, Porter looked stronger and more assertive.
Defensively, he was more connected than last year around this time.
There were also several sequences with Aaron Gordon highlighting a nascent two-man play that wasn’t as prominent last season. With Gordon as the offensive initiator, either with the ball on the pitch or in the transition, he found Porter on a few occasions suggesting a devastating and versatile potential forward pairing. Porter finished with 23 points and seven rebounds.
Perhaps it was the result of not playing through Nikola Jokic, who rejoined the team on Sunday but sat for Monday’s game. Or maybe it was a concerted effort by the Nuggets to put the ball in Gordon’s hands more as a playmaker. He even started sharing court with Monte Morris and PJ Dozier.
After a frustrating late season, Gordon was determined to use his physicality and strength better than last season. At several plays, Gordon put his shoulder down and bullied his defender like a running defender.
Outside of Porter’s scoring, Gordon’s versatility was perhaps the most striking aspect of Monday night. He finished the night with eight points, four rebounds and three assists.
Dozier’s place safe: Despite a deep and talented pool of guards, Nuggets coach Michael Malone emphasized how valuable Dozier is to his roster.
“He’s not fighting for minutes, he’s not fighting for my respect,” Malone said. “I am a huge PJ Dozier fan. I understand the importance of PJ Dozier for the versatility he brings. He’s a man who can play 1, 2 or 3 on offense and he can defend 1-4 on defense.”
Dozier had his moments against the Clippers and did a little bit of everything. He hid two three-pointers, grabbed four rebounds and provided three assists. A three-pointer came from a corner look in the transition – a shot that emphasized the Nuggets in the camp.
In another set, Dozier pulled two defenders and delivered a bouncing pass to a rolling Jeff Green. It turned out to be the highlight of the evening – a poster dunk on Clipper’s great man Harry Giles. The entire Nuggets bank jumped out of their seats at the jam.
Jeff Green is somehow still good for one of these sneaky posters per game 15 years later. pic.twitter.com/dxrkZeny6N
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) October 5, 2021
Bones/bulb: Before the match, Malone saved his highest accolades for Denver rookie Bones Hyland, whose game and energy his teammates have already won.
“The guy who I think had a great camp, and he’s a rookie, is Bones Hyland,” Malone said. “Bones is phenomenal, every day, day in, day out. Everything is thrown at him. But the energy, the pace at which he plays, has been tremendous.”
Hyland played as advertised. He was intrepid, ran into the teeth of the Clippers defense and was aggressive to the edge. His sense of the game was excellent. On one run, Hyland got his defender in the air, drove to the rim, absorbed contact and ended up on a foul. He finished the game 8-of-13 with 19 points.
He and Bol added a tantalizing dimension to Denver’s second unit. Bol, after receiving praise from his teammates during the week in San Diego, backed it up with hustle, effort and some of his signature moments. Whether it was a finger roll on offense or a shot change on defense, Bol supported the modest hype that has been circulating over the past week.
The Nuggets will play their second preseason game in Golden State on Wednesday. Both Jokic and Will Barton are expected to be available.