Good, Bad & Ugly: Nuggets’ late-game scoring struggles doom them in Cleveland

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) drives to the basket against as center Nikola Jokic (15) sets a screen on Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) during the first half at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Mar 7, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) drives to the basket against as center Nikola Jokic (15) sets a screen on Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) during the first half at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets performance following the All-Star break has been less than encouraging.

On one hand, Denver’s offense has come back to life in a meaningful way. In their seven games since the All-Star break, the Nuggets have posted a 116.1 offensive rating which is good for fourth-best in basketball over that timespan.

But that figure is only half of the story. On the defensive side of the court, Denver has fallen off a cliff. In the first 55 games of the season, the Nuggets had the 10th-best defense is the NBA with a defensive rating of an even 108. In the seven games since the All-Star break, Denver’s defensive rating is up to 117.9 which is the third-worst mark in basketball.

Because of their inconsistencies, Denver is just 4-3 in those seven games since the All-Star break.

When taking Denver’s struggles into account, it was clear they were in need of a good showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, the Cavaliers have been struggling this season, but Denver was in need of some positive momentum even if the competition was inferior.

Unfortunately, the same trend held as the Nuggets offense continued to look better at times, but their defense doomed them. That fact led to the Nuggets losing their fourth game in eight tries since the All-Star break as the struggling Cavaliers beat Denver 104-102.

Good – Gary Harris’ resurgence continues

One of the most curious aspects of the Nuggets first 50-or-so games of the season was the complete shift in Gary Harris’ offensive play.

For years, Harris was the ideal hyper-efficient shooting guard and the perfect fourth or fifth option for the Nuggets altruistic style of play. But then Harris’ efficiency disappeared not only from beyond the arc, but at the rim as well which left the rest of his offensive skills obsolete.

That fact is why Harris became one of the least efficient starters in the entire National Basketball Association, but ever since the All-Star break has come and gone his play has taken a turn for the better.

Harris is now shooting 52.3% from the field and a scorching hot 57.9% from beyond the three-point arc in his last eight games after scoring 18 points against the Cavaliers by shooting 7-8 from the field and 3-3 from three-point range to go with a whopping five steals. He is getting to the rim with more regularity, has limited the amount of mid-range shots he is taking, has found a rhythm in dribble-handoffs with Jokic and has began burning the nets off the rim with his outside shooting.

Because of Harris’ resurgence, the Nuggets offense has improved quite a bit. Statistically speaking, Denver’s offense has taken quite the step forward. Prior to the All-Star break, their offensive rating was 112 which placed them as the seventh-best offensive group, but since the All-Star break has ended, Denver now has an offensive rating of 116.1 which is fourth in the Association.

The on-court differences with Harris playing well are even more important. When Harris plays badly with the starting unit, opposing defense can then play off of both Paul Millsap and Harris which destroys all spacing. When the spacing is hurt, Denver struggles to score at the rim which forces them to turn into a jump-shooting team.

When Harris is playing well, the painted area becomes much more viable which in turn allows the Nuggets to break down opposing defense and kick out to open shooters.

Harris’ importance to the Nuggets offense cannot be understated. If he gets back to the player he was just two seasons ago, Denver will be significantly more lethal once the postseason arrives.

Bad – Nuggets transition defense leaves a lot to be desired

The Nuggets are a much-improved defensive team this season, but one issue that has plagued them for the past couple weeks has been their less than ideal transition defense which has led to Malone’s hair turning a lighter shade of grey.

Nothing bothers Malone more than a lack of effort and being bad on defense in transition almost always comes down to lack of attention to detail or lack of effort.

On Saturday night against the Cavaliers, Denver’s transition defense struggled in every way imaginable.

Denver got ran up and down the court all night. It did not matter what the situation was. Every time the Nuggets turned the ball over, the Cavaliers were off to the races. Every time the Nuggets missed a shot, the Cavaliers were off to the races. Even when Denver made a shot, the Cavaliers were running back at them anyway.

By the time the game ended, Cleveland had 24 points off of Denver’s turnovers and 15 fast-break points which were back-breaking buckets.

Until the Nuggets find a way to slow opposing teams in transition, their defense will continue to slide further and further down the leaderboards which will only hurt their odds in the playoffs.

Ugly – Fourth quarter offense dooms Denver

While Denver’s defense struggled all night, it was not the main reason for their loss to the Cavaliers.

The main reason for Denver’s defeat was their offense; especially late in the game.

In the fourth quarter, Denver was only able to muster a measly 19 points. They shot just 8-22 from the field which equates to just 36.4% shooting from the field. They turned the ball over four times compared to six assists.

While their overall statistical output was obviously bad, it wasn’t as brutal as the final seven minutes of the game.

At the 7:08 mark of the fourth quarter, Michael Porter Jr. hit a jump shot to give Denver a 93-90 lead. That is when Cleveland went on a 10-0 run over the next 4:44 of game time to take a seven-point lead as Denver failed to score a single point for nearly five minutes.

During that five minute stretch, their ball moment came to a sudden stop, their decision making became significantly worse, and their shot selection left a lot to be desired. Not even Nikola Jokic could find a rhythm as he shot 0-4 from the field in the fourth quarter.

It has been increasingly more difficult for Denver to score at random moments and the reason why is unknown. One would think that having Jokic and Murray on the floor would allow Denver to create good looks, but so far that has not played out on the court over the past couple weeks.

Denver’s offense has improved since the All-Star break, but they have to find away to eliminate these long stretches of horrific offensive basketball.

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