Well, the first two games of the first round series of the Western Conference Playoffs could not have gone worse for the Denver Nuggets.
After losing Game 1 by 16 points, things only got worse as they imploded in the second half of Game 2 and ultimately lost by 20 points to fall behind 0-2 in the series against the Golden State Warriors.
Vegas does not have much faith in a Nuggets resurgence considering they have +1040 odds to win the series according to FanDuel Sportsbook. So, with the season on the line, what issues do the Nuggets need to resolve in order to overcome their two-game deficit?
Let’s take a look at the five most problematic issues.
Denver Nuggets need to stop giving away so many points to the Golden State Warriors
Here is a startling fact: the Nuggets are giving the Warriors 30.9% of their total points by virtue of points off turnovers and second-chance points.
Yes, nearly 31% of Golden State’s total points are being handed to them on a silver platter by Denver.
Malone has implored his team over the final 10 games of the season to tighten up their execution to avoid beating themselves, but it seems those words have not taken hold in their play.
Denver’s turnover issues are not necessarily due to the amount of giveaways they have, but more about how easily opposing teams score off of those turnovers. In Game 1, the Nuggets had 10 turnovers which is a great number, but the Warriors turned those 10 mistakes into 21 points. In Game 2, Denver had 16 turnovers, which is still a passable figure, but Golden State turned that into 25 points. The Nuggets need to limit their live-ball mistakes or the Warriors will continue to exploit them.
If turnovers were the only issue, it would be manageable, but when combining those free points with far too many second-chance points, the issue exponentially grows. And the 19 made free throws per game are not hurting either.
Overall, 115 points — 31 second-chance points, 38 points from free throws, and 46 points off turnovers — of their 249 total points scored in the first two games of the series have been given to the Warriors by the Nuggets. That is 46.2% of their total points.
Until those numbers are minimized, Denver will continue to lose.
Without the Denver Nuggets cleaning up their perimeter defense, this will be a short series
Well, this is a low-hanging fruit, but it is hyper-important nonetheless.
So far, it would be easier for the Nuggets to find a piece of hay in a bale of needles than keep the Warriors guards in check. When any two of Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry are on the floor together, let alone all three of them, Denver’s defense is stretched beyond its limit.
That fact is evidenced simply by the box scores. Curry is averaging 25 points in just 22.3 minutes per game while shooting 8-16 from 3-point range. Poole is averaging 29.5 points in just under 32 minutes per game on a scorching hot 10 of 17 from beyond the arc. Lastly, Thompson is averaging a quiet 20 points in 32.4 minutes per game while shooting 8 of 18 from deep.
Each and every one of the obvious offensive threats on the Warriors is scoring effortlessly and efficiently while playing extremely manageable minute loads. Everything has been easy for them thus far and until Denver can make life harder for them, their defense will continue to suffer.
Still, there are no readily available solutions for the Nuggets. They tried switching more often in Game 2 which worked early on, but as the Warriors adjusted, they began targeting mismatches, breaking down Denver’s defense, and creating new openings for cutters or 3-point shooters. If Denver tries to blitz ball handlers, Golden State’s bigs will just pick Denver apart from the middle of the court. If Denver drops back to keep everything in front of them and fight over screens, they will give up more 3-pointers.
Denver’s only option might be hoping for an unexpected and sudden shooting slump.
Nikola Jokic is shouldering too much of the Denver Nuggets’ production and needs help
Jokic – despite being the first, second and third priority for the Warriors defense – is averaging 25.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and five assists in just 31.4 minutes per game due to being thrown out early in Game 2.
Simply, Jokic has been mostly himself. Yes, Draymond Green has been a sublime defender, but Jokic is getting to his spots and setting up his teammates for good looks. Unfortunately, Jokic’s teammates are mostly failing him. For every assist Jokic ends up with, there is another perfect pass to an open teammates that clanks off the rim and bounces out.
To make matters worse, Denver does not have enough players who can break down the Warriors defense. Outside of Jokic and sometimes Barton, the remaining number of creators is low. Morris helps in the two-man game with Jokic, but lacks the first-step burst and finishing ability to truly collapse the defense. Bones Hyland has shown flashes, but depending on a rookie to create advantages against the formerly dynastic Warriors is an unfair expectation. Neither of Austin Rivers or Bryn Forbes have the ability to get downhill and be threatening enough to draw an additional defender.
So where has that left the Nuggets? Well, outside of Jokic averaging 25.5 points, only one other player is averaging over 11 points per game; Will Barton III at 18 points per game. Denver is getting next to nothing from Aaron Gordon, Hyland is struggling to find his spots in his first playoff series of his career, Morris is not being aggressive enough, Forbes is not creating space off the ball to get 3-pointers off, and this is is happening while all of JaMychal Green, Jeff Green and DeMarcus Cousins are failing to find a rhythm. Almost nothing has gone right and it only gets worse the further down the rotation you get.
Can the Denver Nuggets overcome the Golden State Warriors small-ball lineup?
By far the most devastating five-man lineup the Warriors can put together is their small-ball group featuring Curry, Poole, Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green. That group has eviscerated the Nuggets on several occasions over two games and it shows no signs of letting up.
It is a strange phenomenon. On one hand, it makes sense that group would outscore virtually any other lineup. But on the other hand, the Nuggets have the perfect counter to a smaller and quicker group in Jokic.
Sure, the Warriors would get up plenty of 3-pointers with that group which will always make it difficult to keep up, but Jokic should have a massive advantage as a rebounder on both ends of the floor. Additionally, Jokic should be able to go into the post and score at will or draw double teams leading to open shooters for him to find. Instead of those things happening, Draymond Green has individually slowed Jokic to such a degree that his advantages no longer mattered.
Draymond Green has stonewalled Jokic in the post, blown up dribble-handoffs, jumped passing lanes, boxed Jokic out on both ends of the floor, and done virtually everything necessary to keep him off balance. It has been a chess game between arguably the smartest offensive player in basketball and the smartest defender in the league and so far Draymond Green has taken the most pieces. Jokic has not been forced to concede just yet, but the pressure is mounting.
For Denver to get back into the series, Jokic has to take that small-ball lineup down low and destroy it. He has the means to do so and without his control of the painted area, Denver has no chance when the Warriors unleash this new death lineup.
Can the Denver Nuggets come back together after two humiliating losses?
In Game 1, Cousins was tossed and it was clear the Nuggets frustration with both themselves and the officials was beginning to accumulate quickly, but by the end of Game 2, that frustration boiled over and infected every aspect of the team.
All night long, Jokic was arguing with officials about foul calls, or lack thereof and it resulted in Jokic arguing to the point of being ejected from the game in the second half. Not only was Jokic arguing, but he was furious to the point of verbally going after referees. Yes, Jokic has a point as Malone stated postgame, but he cannot get thrown out of playoff games. That is simply not ok.
Still, the issues with frustration do not only lay at Jokic’s feet. Barton and Cousins got into a spat on the sidelines for what Barton called, “some goofy shit,” which resulted in Barton being held back by his teammates.
Denver lost their composure in Game 2 and everything spiraled out of control from there. Will the Nuggets regroup and come into Game 3 in the Mile High City with their trip to San Francisco in the rear view mirror or will the demons of Games 1 and 2 follow them back to Denver?
As both Malone and Morris mentioned after the Nuggets Game 2 loss, Denver will not get anywhere if they are splintered. More likely than not, the Nuggets will come together before Game 3 and find the strength to work through this speed bump. Denver is no stranger to adversity during high-stakes moments. They have responded to early-series struggles with multiple 3-1 comebacks and always seem to succeed when counted out.
If they want to reach the second round of the playoffs, they will need to respond to adversity once again.