Riding the Reserves: Michael Malone must resist the temptation to lean on his backups

Apr 11, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone reacts to a technical foul called in the second quarter against the Boston Celtics at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the good news: Your Denver Nuggets are red hot, having just won 17 of their last 21 games, including eight of their last nine.

The bad news: Their recent eight-game winning streak – unprecedented in the Michael Malone Era – just came to an, a result of a massive second half collapse against the Celtics on Sunday.

The best news: When healthy, the Nuggets have a roster that features a clear and obvious starting five, and really, a playoff ready “top-7” – a necessity for any team that looks to go deep into the playoffs. With the addition of Aaron Gordon, and the spectacular emergence Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets starting five has little to no weak spots. Everyone in the starting five can score. And because Gordon is such a dynamic defender, rarely do the matchup problems that used to plague the Nuggets surface. The loss to the Celtics was the first since the acquisition of Gordon at the trade deadline.

More good news: The Nuggets are fairly deep. Even with the absence of Jamal Murray of late – out four games with a sore knee – the Nuggets have enough quality reserves to provide solutions, temporarily at least.

The reality: It’s almost playoff time and depth really doesn’t matter.

And that’s a concept Michael Malone must not only understand, but keep at the forefront, as the postseason nears.

On the surface, one loss in nine games is nothing to criticize. Even the hottest teams can stub their toe. The loss to the Celtics is nothing to dwell over; the Nuggets are a very, very good team. One loss doesn’t change that fact.

However, there are lessons in losing, and this particular loss provided an important one.

In recent years, the Nuggets have had incredibly “deep” rosters. Yes, every good team needs a star or two, and with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets had that, too. But there have also been plenty of times where the difference between the sixth man and the 10th man – or even the 12th man – is negligible.

In the regular season, that’s great. Denver earned piles of wins because the Nuggets first team could go toe-to-toe with just about anyone, but in general, their second team would run the opposition off the floor. The Nuggets reserves won a ton of games.

In the postseason, though, the second team doesn’t matter. The NBA playoffs are essentially a gauntlet that features “your best seven” versus “their best seven.” If the eighth and ninth men on the roster play too many minutes, it usually results in an early exit.

Between now and the end of the season, Malone’s primary goal (aside from winning, of course) must be to define his top 8 – “We have three big guys [JaMychal Green, Paul Millsap and JaVale McGee] that are capable of helping us and playing. That’s probably the biggest area we still have to figure out moving forward,” Malone said after the game – and have a very, very short leash with lineups that look more like “reserves.” Yes, there’s no sense in running a title contending starting five into the ground – minutes must be used wisely – but as tight as things are in the West, Malone can’t ask too much of his second squad too often or for too long.

And that is what happened against the Celtics.

The Celtics won because they finished the game on a 40-8 run (31-8 in the fourth quarter). Those nine unanswered points to begin the run, starting in the third quarter, however, are telling. That run began – not so coincidentally – when the Nuggets starters were being subbed out, essentially between 3:15 and :30 remaining in the third quarter. When Will Barton and Gordon were subbed out and replaced by JaMychal Green and Monte Morris with 3:15 remaining in the third, the Nuggets were up 76-62.

By the 1:13 mark, when Jokic and Porter Jr. were also subbed out, the lead was cut to 79-69.

And that’s when things went south in a hurry. Entering the fourth, Denver’s lead had been whittled down to 79-74.

After riding a lineup that featured Will Barton (who subbed back in for Facu Campazzo right before the fourth quarter), P.J. Dozier, Morris, Paul Millsap and Green for three-and-a-half minutes into the fourth, the Nuggets were down 82-80. And that’s when Malone finally called timeout and began subbing back in his starters.

In retrospect, it was a seven-minute mistake that cost Denver the game.

As good as Malone has been this season, this one’s on him. At times, the ol’ ball coach can be incredibly stubborn; perhaps the nicer way to put it is “loyal,” particularly towards veterans.

Millsap’s best days are behind him, yet, Malone still insists on giving him ample minutes. While the Celtics slashed their way to the basket time and time again in the third and fourth quarter, newly acquired rim protector JaVale McGee sat on the bench (he logged zero minutes and shows up as a “DNP-Coach’s Decision” in the boxscore).

Malone can be given a pass of sorts because Jamal Murray wasn’t available, but he should also be criticized for giving the free-wheeling Barton too long of a leash. Barton certainly has his place – he can fill up the scoreboard in a hurry – but as observers of the Nuggets can attest, Barton can also shoot Denver out of a game in similar fashion. Malone’s gauge for Barton’s temperature on any given night is non-existent; it appears Barton will play regardless of how hot, cold or selfish or unselfish he is.

If the plus-minus stat is any indicator, the loss to the Celtics is telling.

The Nuggets “plus” players: Gordon (+10), Jokic (+9), Porter Jr. (+8) and Campazzo (+1).

The “minus” players (who played eight minutes or more): Dozier (-30), Millsap (-23), Green (-23), Morris (-23), Nnaji (-6) and Barton (-4).

Obviously, Malone can’t ride “the obvious” all game long. However, in a seven-minute stretch filled with “minus” players, the trigger must be quicker. And when the “twos” aren’t playing well as a group, there may also need to be a mix and rotation that pairs Gordon, Jokic and Porter Jr. (and soon Murray) with units that aren’t scoring. And when they’re not defending, where in the world is McGee? Afterall, that’s the sole reason he was wisely acquired by Tim Connelly at the trade deadline. McGee can undoubtedly be a “stopper” when runs – like the one that took place against the Celtics – become runaways.

It’s nice when the Nuggets backups can seal a win over the likes of Detroit or Atlanta. But against a team like Boston, in the month of April, Malone can’t count on his bench too much or too long. That’s certainly not an option in the postseason.

In the playoffs, and to some extent the race toward them, depth is extremely overrated.

Luckily the Nuggets have a starting five that can win it all.

So long as they’re on the court.