Everything lined up for the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
If the Minnesota Timberwolves lost to the Washington Wizards and the Nuggets were able to overcome the San Antonio Spurs in the Mile High City with Dejuonte Murray out, they would officially secure a top-six seed in the Western Conference and an automatic bid to the playoffs.
The first domino fell as the Timberwolves lost 132-114 to the Washington Wizards. Suddenly all the Nuggets had to do was beat the depleted Spurs at home. Seems simple enough right?
Wrong. The Nuggets instead fell to the Spurs 116-97 leaving the door open for Denver to fall into the play-in tournament.
“We got lucky when Washington went and beat Minnesota,” Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “We wasted a golden opportunity. I just do not think we had the requisite focus, determination, urgency, desperation, or whatever adjective you want to use. I just did not think we had it tonight. And just the lack of discipline – things we have been working on since September and have been giving us trouble all year long and they continue to give us trouble – that is probably one of the more frustrating things for me. Just too many breakdowns in a big game and they made us pay for it.
“Give San Antonio credit. They played harder than us for 48 minutes.”
This was not a polarizing opinion shared by Malone. The rest of the team clearly felt the same and when both Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon were asked postgame about the loss, they megaphoned Malone’s comments.
“They beat us. They were the better team today,” Nikola Jokic, who has the best MVP odds according to FanDuel Sportsbook, said when reflecting on the loss after putting up yet another incredible stat-stuffing performance with 41 points, 17 rebounds and four assists. “Did we have an opportunity? Yes, record-wise or whatever, but those guys play hard and they outplayed us today. I don’t want to say we are better than them, but we had a good opportunity.”
“It is a bad loss for us,” Aaron Gordon said after putting up 18 points and 13 rebounds of his own in Denver’s defeat at the hands of the Spurs. “We did not take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to us and it is frustrating. But we know we have two games left and our focus is on Memphis now.”
When taking a closer look at what went wrong for the Nuggets, it was more of the same; specifically bad defensive play. Denver has the fourth-worst defensive rating across the league over their last 10 games which has been the main contributor to their 5-5 record. Over their last 10 games, the Nuggets are allowing an incomprehensible 120.6 defensive rating. The only teams who are worse than Denver over that span are the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Indiana Pacers; all of whom are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
So what is going so wrong for Denver’s defense?
“My friend, I really do not know,” Jokic said. “It is the 80th game. I don’t know. Probably just to play harder.
“We did not control the game. We did not defend at all.”
When Gordon was asked the same question, he shine light on one possible fix that could be implemented right away.
“I think we just need to communicate a little better,” Gordon explained. “I felt like we were quiet out there for tonight on defense. Communication is a huge, huge part of defense.”
In Gordon’s opinion, Denver’s struggling communication is an easy fix because it all falls on one person; Gordon himself. After the loss to San Antonio, Gordon shouldered much of the defensive blame.
“That is on me. That is on me,” Gordon reiterated. “I have to be the staple of this defense. I have to be kind of the captain of the defense. I just need to talk and make sure that I am explaining where I am at, what I am doing and what needs to be happen and having a constant line of communication with all of the other players on the floor.”
Still, there is more at work for the Nuggets other than lack of execution and effort on defense.
The biggest issue that is becoming more and more apparent is Jokic’s level of exhaustion after carrying the Nuggets to 47 wins thus far while putting up MVP-like numbers on a game-by-game basis.
“He is fatigued,” Malone stated clearly. “He has been carrying a team for 80 games and I cannot take him out of the game. So you have to go right back to him when he is gassed. I went back to him around the 9:30 mark tonight and he looked at me like ‘already?'”
This is far from surprising. With both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. virtually missing the entire season thus far, Jokic has had to carry the weight of keeping the Nuggets afloat. Sure, Gordon has been great all season and the likes of Will Barton III, Monte Morris, Bones Hyland and others have stepped up at moments, but make no mistake; without Jokic, the Nuggets would have been one of the worst teams in the league this season. That responsibility he has shouldered has taken its toll.
“I think he is tired because the guy leads the league in triple-doubles, double-doubles, PER, I can go on and on,” Malone said. “He is top-10 in every category, he is going to be the only player in NBA history to average 25 (points), 13 (rebounds), and 6 (assists) so he is exhausted.”
“He will never say that, but he is and he should be because of everything he has done for us.”
Despite all that is working against them, the Nuggets locker room remains confident in their ability to get back to being the best version of themselves. They know what it takes to win in the playoffs and Denver still has arguably the greatest basketball player on earth on their team. If they can dial in their execution, this roster believes they can beat anyone.
“We are there. We are there. We are not looking into the future of how we can be as a team in two weeks, three weeks or four weeks. No, we are there,” Gordon repeated. “When we come together and pay attention to details, we are as good as any team in the league. We are where we need to be. We just need to make sure we are tightening things up and paying attention to details; playing together.”
Gordon’s reason for his confidence comes down to one extremely simple – nearly reductive – fact.
“Oh yeah. We got ball players, man,” Gordon said. “We got ball players, we got confident shot makers, we got facilitators, we got all types of players who just love the game and have passion for the game. So when you bring that together with a level of focus, we can beat anybody.”
It remains to be seen if the Nuggets have enough talent to win multiple playoff series this season – potentially without either of Murray or Porter – but that locker room believes they belong and anyone who has watched the Nuggets over the past few seasons knows how well Denver thrives when their back is against the wall.
That is why Malone is not over-reacting to this loss and still believes the Nuggets will find it within themselves to get to the playoffs and make noise once they get there.
“I am pretty faithful. We have 47 wins. This is a tough loss, but you don’t overreact at game 80,” Malone said. “There is disappointment — every loss sucks and I hate losing — but I think it is important to attack Memphis as our chance to clinch a playoff spot.”
“Lucky for us, we still control our own destiny. We don’t need to scoreboard watch or take out the rosary beads. We control our own destiny.”