As the Denver Nuggets fell in overtime in the final game of the season to essentially the G-League variant of the lottery-bound Los Angeles Lakers, it was clear they were not crisp.
Yes, the Nuggets were resting Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Nikola Jokic, and Will Barton III, but that fact aside, Denver has not executed at a high level for more than a quarter or two at a time in weeks.
“Very disappointing 4th quarter,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the loss to the Lakers in the Mile High City before abruptly ending his press conference after just 59 seconds. “We played no defense, gave up 40 points and gave up seven 3s in the fourth quarter…They closed 15-4 in the last three minutes.”
Thankfully, the loss had no impact on the standings — regardless of the outcome, the Nuggets would have ended as the sixth seed in the Western Conference with the Golden State Warriors securing the third seed — and they escaped the game without any further injuries.
“The season is over, no one got hurt tonight, and we are focused on moving forward and preparing for Golden State,” Malone stated.
The reason Malone was irate enough to end the press conference himself in under a minute was because for weeks, the Nuggets have not executed at the level they are capable of for more than a quarter or two at a time. If Denver enters the first round without an uptick in intensity and focus, it could be a quick exit from postseason play for the Nuggets.
“Golden State is no pushover,” Bryn Forbes said after the loss when looking ahead to the first round of the playoffs.
DeMarcus Cousins knows just how difficult the task ahead is from when he played for the Warriors during the 2018-19 season. When he was asked about the challenge ahead, he made it clear just how well-built the Warriors are for postseason success.
“We are playing two of the greatest shooters of all time; constant threats on the floor from basically everywhere,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “They are a well-oiled machine. They have championship DNA and they have been here plenty of times.”
That is why Boogie did not hold back when asked if the Nuggets have to flip a switch and tighten things up if they hope to reach the second round of the playoffs.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Cousins reiterated. “The regular season is one thing – obviously you can get away with some things; a lot of small detail things – but in the playoffs, every possession matters. We have to lock in on the game plan; whatever that may be, and every detail matters.”
Cousins, as well as the rest of the organization, understands the Nuggets were able to win regular season games on the back of MVP-caliber play from Nikola Jokic and just a small amount of help from the bench unit. But now with the playoffs here, that strategy for success has become obsolete.
“This is real basketball,” Cousins stated. “This is when your talent has to come out. Like I said, the regular season is one thing; you can kind of go through the motions and get through it and be successful, but you really have to get in your bag in the playoffs. The real hoopers come out.
“The intensity goes to the next level. The hoopers have to show.”
The Nuggets have until April 16 to get themselves ready to battle with the previously dynastic Warriors. Over that week, Denver will have multiple practices to iron out some wrinkles, absurd amounts of film work on how to attack and defend against Golden State, and do whatever they can to prepare for the fight ahead.
“Locked in,” Cousins said when asked how he will spend the next week. “It is a week full of preparation. We have a chance to get in better shape with this week.”
Denver has a few particular issues to address in the coming days.
Their defense has fallen off a cliff as the end of the season drew near. Any team with an even somewhat dynamic backcourt has absolutely scorched Denver’s perimeter defense which has forced the Nuggets to rotate earlier than they wanted eventually concluding with shooters getting open 3-pointers. Unless the Nuggets guards find a way to keep perimeter players in front of them, they will constantly be chasing on defense instead of controlling the pace of the game.
In addition to their struggles on defense, Denver has had issues getting their bench unit playing well int the same game as their starters. The first half of the season was incredible play from Denver’s starting group while their bench unit suffered. Around the All-Star break, Denver’s reserves finally found a rhythm and it coincided with sustained winning, but over the last couple week of the regular season, Denver’s starters have slipped while the bench has kept them in games with regularity.
Still, no issue looms as large as the Nuggets turnover problems. Denver is averaging over 15 turnovers per game over their last 15 games of the regular season which turned into a horrendous 20.1 points per game given to opponents off turnovers. Denver cannot just hand over 20 points a night to the Warriors or the series will be over swiftly.
“The biggest thing for us? We have to get our turnovers under control because against a team like Golden State, they can capitalize,” Cousins stated. “If you have a 10-15 turnover game, it can get ugly. I would say the biggest thing right now is turnovers and we need to get our rotations down pat on the defensive end.”
So how does Denver solve these problems? What needs to change in order for the Nuggets to overcome their ailments?
“Being poised, playing with urgency, playing with intensity,” Cousins explained. “There is no more going through the motions. Every pass should be two-handed passes and two-handed catches. It sounds simple, but the small details matter in the playoffs. We just need to lock in and focus.”
“The focus and attention to detail has to be much higher than the regular season and also you have to be able to adjust because you are playing a team that has just spent a week preparing for you, every day watching a lot of film, and they will try to change everything they do and take away what you are best at,” Forbes explained. “We can do the same and we can adjust so we will be fine.”
The one advantage the Nuggets will have in any series they play is having the best player in the series in likely back-to-back Most Valuable Player award winner in Nikola Jokic, how has absolutely thrived in the playoffs over his career.
Jokic already has 43 playoff games under his belt and in those games, he is averaging a dominant 25.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 6.4 assists on 51.2% shooting from the field and 40.6% from 3-point range.
“That is the last guy I am worried about,” Cousins stated without hesitating. “(Jokic) is probably one of the most consistent superstars I have ever been around. The way that guy prepares and works, I know for a fact he will be ready.”
Still, the rest of the roster needs to catch up to Jokic’s level of focus and preparation. In order to get everyone ready, Cousins has made it clear he has no issues speaking up and reminding his teammates just how important this time for preparation is.
“I will definitley be speaking up a lot as well,” Cousins said. “Even though this last stretch of the regular season, I was preaching that we should work on our winning habits to prepare ourselves for this first round coming up.
“Definitely, conversations will be had.”
Still, the Nuggets know they can win this series despite how difficult it may end up being. If they play their brand of basketball and come ready for a fight, they have the best player in the series in Jokic and enough talent surrounding him to make it to the second round of the playoffs.
“We got a tough one on our hands,” Cousins explained with reflecting on his time with the Warriors, who are favored to win the series with -2000 odds to move onto the second round according to FanDuel Sportsbook. “I am sure our coaching staff and everyone involved will have us well-prepared so we just have to lace up our boots and get ready for battle.”