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Nuggets dismantle injury-riddled Grizzlies, 128-103, to win fourth-straight game

No Jamal Murray. No Aaron Gordon. No problem.

Against an injury-riddled Grizzlies team, the Nuggets led by as many as 29 points while shooting 53.3% from the floor en route to a 128-103 rout on Monday night at Ball Arena. Denver has won four straight games and improved to 15-2 since the All-Star break.

“That’s the way you want to start off a five-game home stand,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said.

Nikola Jokic paced the Nuggets (51-21) with 29 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Jokic, seeking to win his third MVP award in four seasons, was nearly unstoppable in the first quarter, totaling 16 points and four rebounds.

He finished the game shooting 11 for 18 from the floor.

Denver guard Christian Braun added 17 points and five rebounds. Forward Michael Porter Jr. had 11 points, as he was held to under 20 points for the second consecutive game. The Nuggets were 15 for 32 (46.9%) from behind the arc.

The Grizzlies (24-48), who have watched their season be derailed by injuries, had 12 players appear on the injury report, with six ruled out ahead of Monday’s matchup.

Denver, however, has been no stranger to the injury bug. Murray (left ankle sprain) and Gordon (foot) did not play, forcing guards Reggie Jackson and Braun to be inserted into the starting lineup.

With the postseason approaching, Malone said pregame that he didn’t want to rush Murray, who has missed two straight games, back from an ankle injury suffered in the closing seconds of Denver’s victory over the New York Knicks last week.

Even though Malone thinks Murray has gotten better, he said the ankle is still swollen.

“When you couple the ankle with the shin splints and the knee, he’s dealing with a lot,” Malone said.

Malone knows Murray can play through pain, calling the guard one of the league’s toughest players. But at this point of the season, Malone wants to be smart and protect Murray, even from himself. He added that the team will see how Murray is feeling before Denver’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.

“We’re not going to rush him back,” Malone said. “When Jamal feels like he’s able to go out there and play his game, then he’ll be back with us.”

Murray and Gordon being sidelined meant Jackson and Braun had to step up. After scoring 23 points in the win over Portland, Jackson recorded 15 points on 4-for-9 shooting. Braun had an interesting sequence in the second quarter. First, he raced down the floor before catching a pass from Jokic and then throwing down a two-handed dunk. Moments later, he hit a defender with a Euro-step, as he converted a finger-roll layup, extending the Nuggets’ lead to 64-36 with 3:19 to go in the quarter.

Making his second start of the season, Braun continued to ruin Memphis’ evening. He scored Denver’s first six points of the third quarter. With 10:16 to go, Jokic grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled down the floor and threw a no-look pass to Braun for a layup, which gave the Nuggets a 75-49 advantage.

“Earlier in the year, if (Braun) missed a couple, he (started) hesitating and wasn’t shooting the open shot, which was the ripple effect in our offense,” Malone said. “I think Braun on both ends of the floor was incredible.”

The Nuggets established dominance in the opening minutes of the game, allowing Malone to go deep into his bench. Up by 15 late in the first, the Nuggets ran a lineup that featured Collin Gillespie, Julian Strawther, Peyton Watson (10 points and 10 rebounds) and Justin Holiday (11 points).

Strawther took advantage of his minutes on the floor. He converted a fastbreak layup with 30 seconds left in the first. Two minutes into the second quarter, he drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key, extending Denver’s lead 46-29. The former Gonzaga standout had 14 points.

“I didn’t wake up knowing I was going to play,” Strawther said. “Just being able to be ready and having coaches that challenge me every day so I can come out here and have an impact.”

For the most part, the Nuggets were stout defensively. They held Memphis to 39.8% shooting and 25.6% from the 3-point line while recording nine steals and seven blocks. Denver had seven players record a steal, including Jokic with a team-best of three. Watson tallied three blocks.

The Nuggets became lackadaisical midway through the third, as they allowed Memphis to score nine unanswered, cutting the lead down to 15 points. After Malone called a timeout, Denver regained focus and went on a commanding 14-2 run.

Strawther showed tremendous effort when he leaped up to prevent the ball from going out of bounds then passed it to Gillespie on the wing, where he threw a lob to Watson for an alley-oop dunk, increasing Denver’s lead to 95-68 with 2:37 left in the quarter.

“You got to come in with your hard hat on or (teams) will embarrass you,” Watson said. “I think any team in this league could beat anybody on any given night. I think it’s about staying true to our principals and taking care of business.”

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