Each of the Nuggets involved can live with the final seconds of Denver’s 108-106 loss Wednesday in Memphis.
“As soon as he got it and got to his spot, I thought we were going to overtime,” Nuggets wing Will Barton III said after Nikola Jokic missed a tying shot at the buzzer, dropping Denver to 4-4 on the season.
“Tonight, it just didn’t go in. We’ll live and die with that shot from him any day of the week.”
It’s the bad stretches of the first 47 minutes and 50 seconds of basketball that bothered Barton, Jokic and Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
After Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon hit a 15-footer to open the scoring, Memphis scored the next 14 points to open a double-digit lead. The Grizzlies led by 20 later in the first quarter after a Kyle Anderson 3-pointer.
“We had a chance to tie it at the end,” Malone said after the Nuggets lost in Memphis for the second time in three days. “In light of our disastrous start, in light of everything, and we just came up short. But the lesson in this one is … you cannot wait to turn it on, and the starters have a responsibility to get us off to a much better start than they did tonight.”
The Nuggets erased the deficit and took a lead in the second quarter. Denver increased the lead to 10 late in the third quarter before Memphis used an 11-0 run to regain the lead. It remained a close contest throughout the fourth quarter.
Ja Morant split a pair of free throws with 10.6 seconds left, putting the Grizzlies up two before Memphis used its foul to give. The Nuggets inbounded to Barton with 8.9 seconds left, needing a bucket to force overtime or a 3 to win it at the buzzer.
“You’re not going to get a better shot than that,” Malone said. “The guys executed the play on the board, so I give them credit for that.”
Barton dribbled to the right side of the court where Nikola Jokic was coming off a screen. Jokic faced up against Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr., took a couple of dribbles to his left and pulled up in the middle of the paint. His shot came off the front rim right at the buzzer.
“He’s moving his feet. He can block shots, so I didn’t want to go right away, because if I maybe go by him, somebody is going to be in the paint, and I don’t want to shoot a tough shot,” Jokic said. “I probably wait a little bit. Then, I just got in the middle of the paint. I will take that shot any day. I’m really confident taking that shot. I’m not doubting myself. It was a good shot.”
Jokic told Malone he thought he was fouled, but the referees disagreed. Jokic finished with a game-high 34 points to go with 11 rebounds and five assists. Barton scored 10 of his 26 points as the Nuggets got back in the game in the second quarter and finished with seven assists.
“We definitely started off bad. It’s tough to overcome,” Barton said.
“We fought back but just didn’t have enough left to close it out.”
Michael Porter Jr. was the only other Nugget to score in double figures, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds. The Nuggets finished 8 of 27 from 3-point range, while Memphis went 16 for 34.
“We are providing good shots,” Jokic said. “I think most of them are good shots, but we are not making them. Hopefully, as a group, we’re going to start shooting better. That’s going to help us a lot.”
Jackson hit 5 of 9 from 3-point range to lead Memphis with 22 points. Morant added 18 points, six rebounds and six assists, while Desmond Bane and Kyle Anderson finished with 16 points apiece.
It looked like Bane committed a traveling violation before he called timeout with 12.5 seconds left, as the Grizzlies struggled to inbound the ball.
“I didn’t know Desmond Bane was a salsa dancer because he was on that sideline moving quite a bit,” Malone said before earnestly complimenting the referees and adding you must move on to the next play.
Morant went on to put the Grizzlies up two in the immediate aftermath before Jokic’s makeable miss at the buzzer.
“How many times have we seen him hit that shot or a shot like that?” Malone wondered. “As I told him in front of the team, I will live with Nikola taking that shot, regardless of the result, 1,000 times out of 1,000. You’ve got the MVP taking a shot that is definitely in his wheelhouse.”
After opening the week with a couple of losses in Memphis, the Nuggets will look for a weekend win over Houston at Ball Arena on Saturday.