Defending champion Nuggets visit Grizzlies

The reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets go on the road for the first time in the 2023-24 season Friday when they visit the Memphis Grizzlies.

Denver began its defense of the first championship in franchise history with a 119-107 defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday. The 2020-21 and 2021-22 Most Valuable Player and last season’s Finals MVP Nikola Jokic tipped off the campaign with a 29-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist triple-double.

Jokic has averaged 19.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 26 career matchups with Memphis. Last season, Jokic scored no more than 18 points in any of Denver’s three meetings with the Grizzlies but recorded triple-doubles in each of the Nuggets’ two wins.

On Tuesday, all five Denver starters scored in double figures and three notched at least 20 points. Jamal Murray shot 8-of-13 from the floor, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range en route to 21, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went 8-of-12 from the floor for 20 points.

The Nuggets also got a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double from Michael Porter Jr. in the season opener. Prior to the game, the team received its 2022-23 championship rings.

“It was a lot of fun over the summer, but we’ve got to be where we want to be: champ again,” Murray said in his postgame news conference. “Next summer comes, I want to have that same feeling. … We’ve got a target on our backs. Teams our going to come out with energy against us.”

Among those teams looking to dethrone Denver with a new-look roster is Memphis. The Grizzlies retained several key contributors from last year’s playoff squad, including Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman Sr.

However, three starters from the 2022-23 Memphis starting five will not play on Friday: Dillon Brooks went to Houston in an offseason sign-and-trade, two-time All-Star guard Ja Morant is serving a 25-game suspension and veteran big man Steven Adams will undergo season-ending knee surgery.

The Grizzlies started offseason acquisition Marcus Smart at point guard in Morant’s place for Wednesday’s 111-104 season-opening loss to New Orleans. Smart finished with 17 points and three assists, below Morant’s 2022-23 season averages of 26.2 points and 8.1 assists a contest.

Bane picked up the backcourt scoring load on Wednesday, however, with 31 points. Bane shot 5-of-10 from 3-point range on a night the rest of the Grizzlies struggled from deep.

“Whatever the team needs. Guys will have it going different nights,” Bane said in his postgame news conference of picking up the slack amid the team’s transitional period. “Some nights it will be (Jackson), some nights it will be (Smart), some nights it will be (David Roddy, who scored nine points off the bench on Wednesday).”

Poor 3-point shooting continues a trend from a season ago when the Grizzlies ranked No. 23 in the NBA (35.1 percent from beyond the arc). Memphis went 7-of-33 from long range in the opener excluding Bane’s 5-of-10, and 38-of-91 from the floor overall as a team.

The frontcourt tandem of Tillman – who started in Adams’ place from a season ago – and Jackson shot 7-of-16 and 2-of-9 from the floor, respectively. Tillman finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds and was the only Memphis player with more than five rebounds.

Jackson scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked five shots. He averaged 18.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game en route to his first career All-Star selection a season ago.